The Pitfalls of Humanitarian Aid

Christine Mikolajuk in the Harvard International Review:

Because it is often assumed that any aid is better than no aid, donor countries often waste desperately-needed funds on unnecessary goods and splurge on bureaucracies and staff. Well-intentioned doctors have sent stores of frost-bite medicine to tropical countries as well as laxatives, anti-indigestion remedies, and diet foods to the starving. The United States sent 100-volt operated refrigerators at great cost only to find that they were useless at their destinations, which operated on 200-volt electrical systems. In Afghanistan, packets of food dropped from planes were sold across the border to Pakistan. The United Nations has flown in graduate students with no field experience into East Africa, and the US agency for which they worked was paid US$400,000. Such inefficiencies take on a disturbing moral dimension when the goods from donor countries are considered to be inadequate for consumption in wealthier countries, but considered fit for humanitarian aid. In November 2002, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of India (GEAC) refused to admit 1,000 tons of corn-soya blend coming from the US non-governmental organizations (NGO) CARE-India and Catholic Relief Services. This shipment was to be the first of a 23,000 ton package of food aid for children in schools as part of the “midday meal program.” The two NGOs could not provide proof that the food did not contain a variety of genetically modified corn that is considered unfit for human consumption in the United States which has relatively weak restrictions against genetically modified food when compared with Europe. The entry of genetically modified foods into the world of humanitarian aid has sparked much controversy as poor countries try to battle the danger of becoming a dumping ground for “experimental” food.