Eryan Cobham

Thinker-tinker. Web Developer.

Who Really C.A.R.E.s?

I was reading this article a week or so ago in the New York Times about aid organizations in Africa. Basically the gist of the article was that this big African hunger relief organization, C.A.R.E. has decided to forgo millions dollars of money, and a bunch of other organizations were (lamely) trying to defend their refusal to make the same choice.

I apologize for waiting so long to write this that the article is no longer available on the times website, cause it was a good article, (here’s the article about it). I would put up a link to a pdf with the full article, but I’m fairly sure that would be illegal (if you really want to read it, let me know, I’m sure I know somebody that pays for Times Select). The way I understood it, the way things were currently working was that the US government would buy all the surplus crops from US farmers. Then, they would give the grain or whatever other crops to these aid organizations. The aid organizations would then sell that food in the African countries in order to generate funds that they use for their operations.

So according to that article, C.A.R.E. is the largest single recipient of that kind of aid, and they turned it down because they felt that it was harming the very same thing they were supposed to be helping – the African economy. They felt that the system had a lot of inefficiencies (they only recouped 70-80 percent of what the US spent buying and shipping the food) and that it undercut the African farmers that were trying to sell their own crops but couldn’t afford to sell it as low as the prices that C.A.R.E were selling it at.

This reminds me of an interview I read a while ago with this Kenyan economist (at least I think he was, my memory sucks) who was saying how the best thing all these developed countries could do for African countries was to just leave them alone, because their kind of help only really hurts the population and makes them more dependent. At the time I didn’t really feel him, because i generally think that things are way more nuanced than people usually make them out to be, and situations dealing with countries and economies and the developed vs. developing world especially so. After reading this article though, I have to say that I am feeling his point, and I MAD respect C.A.R.E. for making this choice.

Let’s look for a second at who benefits from this current arrangement: the U.S. agricultural businesses benefit, because this guarantees a floor on the prices for their goods, since the U.S. government will buy up any surplus they have; it’s probably neutral for the government, because they are doing the buying and transport, but 180 million dollars is honestly like some spare change the government forgot in its pocket (the FY08 federal budget is 2.902 trillion dollars) and didn’t care about, and it gets to look like it is doing a whole bunch to help starving Africans; it helps the aid organizations, because its basically the equivalent of donations and keep them in business, hopefully doing what their mission statement says; and it helps people that have enough money to buy the food; it also probably indirectly helps people that benefit from the relief organizations’ services too.

The thing that made me start to question this arrangement came from the mouths of the people involved. Peep some of the quotes from other organizations:

“Sure it’s self-interest if staying in business to help the hungry is self-interested,” said Avram E. Guroff, a senior official at ACDI/VOCA, which ranked sixth in such sales last year. “We’re not lining our pockets.”But while Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children, which ranked fifth last year in such sales, agree with CARE that the system is inefficient, they also say they will not stop converting American food into money unless Congress replaces the lost revenues with cash. They help poor people with the money, they say.

Those two quotes alone were enough to make me agree with C.A.R.E. I don’t trust that these organizations don’t even acknowledge the possibility that there might be conflict of interest for them. I think its fairly obvious that American organizations coming in, selling huge quantities of food at cheap prices might screw over the local farmers. In that first quote, it really sounded to me that this guy was hiding behind the people he was supposed to be helping and trying to make it seem like his organization’s interest directly align with those of the people in the countries it operates in. Sure they would like to be able to buy food at reasonable prices, but that seems to pay no attention to sustainability. He completely dodged the question, in my mind. Nobody claimed he was trying to line his pockets, but he tried to make it seem like just because he was trying to help people, there was no way what he was doing could be wrong. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but that second quote just feels wrong, saying that well if they stop doing that, then they need to give us cash. Where did that sense of entitlement come from? These are charitable organizations, so they obviously survive on donations, but when you’re that dependent on the government, whether you’re a person, business, or organization, there is a problem.

As noble as the aims of these organizations seem to be, what happens to them if the people of the country can feed themselves? At that point, they’re obsolete. On the other hand, as long as the people can’t grow their own crops or develop businesses that would help their economy start to survive on it’s own, those organizations have a purpose and there is a need for them to be there, collecting money. The fact that you have these huge agricultural businesses (let’s not pretend these are poor individual farmers) and these charitable organizations all lobbying for the same purpose means that they basically can’t lose. That’s a lot of money lining government pockets, so at that point, I think whether or not it actually does these countries a disservice becomes practically irrelevant.

What C.AR.E. has decided to do instead is to find ways to help farmers and other people in those countries find ways to start their own businesses and develop markets for the products they can produce. I have to say, I have never been one to support unchecked capitalism, but over the past few years I have become a much bigger supporter of the free market (checked and stopped form its worst excesses by the government of course – we can all dream, right?). The idea of people selling their own crops and having their own self sufficient economy is way more appealing that these organizations depressing their growth.

Maybe that’s an unrealistic ideal, because it requires a lot more intensive and personal work that just throwing money and food at people, and maybe a lot of people suffer in the mean time, while things get off the ground. But there has to be some kind of middle ground, that helps people eat right now, while at the same time working toward them no longer needing that help at some time in the future. Basically, I definitely fuck with C.A.R.E. now and will be donating money to them when I can afford to give to anybody, because that was a ballsy move, giving up a good chunk of their income because they felt it no longer aligned with their goals. I respect that.

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