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World hunger: Is direct food aid a solution?

THOSE with a philosophical bent find United States food aid programs a wonderful mire to wade in. Are US objectives humanitarian or economic? Do we want to feed hungry people or build markets for US farm products? Being a more pragmatic soul, I must answer all these questions ``Yes.'' In food aid, it is possible to serve two masters. And whatever our motives, Americans should be proud of the global food aid we provide.

While the US produces only a small fraction of the world's food output, it contributes more than half the food given to those in need. In addition to our own programs, like the Public Law 480 Food for Peace Program and the Section 416 program which make surplus commodities available, the US has been the leader in international efforts, such as the World Food Program. We lead the world in the amount of aid provided and in coordinating the programs.

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The arguments over whether our objectives are inconsistent have persisted for years. Those who agree that humanitarian aid is our chief objective often disagree on whether the aid should focus on the neediest people or be used to promote industrial and economic growth. Controversy also exists about the nature of our agricultural objectives. Should we look at food aid as a short-term way to dispose of surplus commodities or as a long-term method of developing foreign markets? Some in the agricultural community even fear that, as developing countries produce more and more commodities, they will hurt our agriculture by becoming our competitors.

The tug of war over the purpose of the food aid programs has raged since they were started in the late 1940s and early '50s. During that time, abundant supplies of commodities made surplus disposal and market development paramount. During the 1960s, the emphasis shifted to meeting the needs of hungry people. The tight food supply of the early 1970s made us reexamine our commitment to food aid programs. It seems difficult to remember that only 10 or 12 years ago we were discussing the population explosion and dwindling resources incapable of supporting humankind. Small was beautiful.

Rightly, the US continued its commitment to humanitarian programs and a policy of ``new directions,'' helping developing nations help themselves and providing food aid to the poorest nations rather than to those on the verge of industrial and economic growth. Since the late 1970s, domestic and world food supplies have proliferated. Consequently, the US has eased the requirement that 75 percent of the Food for Peace program's food aid go to the neediest countries and raised the minimum tonnage distributed under the Food for Peace program.

More important, we've recognized that growing enough food to feed the people in the world is not the problem; getting it to them is. Surpluses of food simply sit in the wrong places: Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. We have 40 percent of the world's food stocks in storage in this country. Getting it to the inner parts of Ethiopia, where there are no roads, where there are no airports, where there is no network of people to distribute it, will be the food aid challenge of the '80s and '90s. Getting food into the interior of Mali or the Sudan and other African countries that are very large, but have very few people, is not easy to do. We must also understand the paradoxes of food aid. India is often touted as a food aid success story because it is now exporting agricultural commodities. Yet half the malnourished people in the world -- 200 million -- live in India. Crops grown near the coast are exported, because Indians have no satisfactory means to get them to their own people in need.

In addition to the problems of distribution and transportation, we must come to grips with the effect food aid has on the recipient country. It's easy to crush a fragile agricultural economy with food aid. Even though the agricultural base of most recipient countries doesn't provide all the food that is needed, normally it provides most of the food. When a large quantity of agricultural commodities enters a developing country, it can drive down the price and lead to lower incomes for farmers. Food aid can also shape politics. It may allow a repressive government to maintain the status quo or, worse, to use food to coerce or manipulate the people.

The problem of world hunger will not be solved by growing more food or distributing more food but only by finding means to build independence. The challenge of food aid (and other foreign assistance) programs will be to create economic growth where it is most needed -- among the poorest of the poor.

America's experience of more than 30 years in food aid programs has brought all these problems into focus. But they will not be solved by abandoning the programs. Instead, we should structure them carefully in each country, understanding its culture, so as to minimize adverse effects. Our food aid programs have had successes -- South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Brazil. We will continue to have more if we learn from past experience and proceed with our eyes open.

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Also, there must be greater coordination among agencies and countries providing food aid. Our goal must be to eliminate world hunger. The only way is to raise world hunger on our list of priorities and make a commitment to achieve that goal.

Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R) of Minnesota has been holding hearings on food aid problems.

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