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Relief agency stops giving food amid controversy over such aid

Ndaye Seck sat on a cement bench in the yard of the St. Laurent Center, reining in her two fidgeting boys and waiting for the nuns to open the baby-weighing station. ``I come here every month,'' she said. For a token fee, mothers who come to St. Laurent have their babies' growth checked, listen to health lectures, and receive a ration of cooking oil, powdered milk, and corn meal.

Next year the women who come to St. Laurent and the other 439 weighing stations around the country will get no food. That is because the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) recently decided to eliminate almost entirely its nonemergency food-aid programs in Senegal.

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The decision to turn away from food aid - except for relief needs - reflects the controversy that surrounds using Western food surpluses as a resource in third world development projects.

CRS, the development arm of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and the largest private American relief agency, is the sole distributer of US government farm surpluses used in development projects in Senegal. The US also sends food here to be sold to support Senegal's budget.

The baby-weighing centers have been plagued with problems since the program began in 1973, according to officials familiar with the CRS move.

The dimensions and operations of the centers - which serve some 171,000 recipients - put CRS in a squeeze. On one hand, the US Agency for International Development (AID) demanded CRS's accountability for the program's success. But the Senegalese government, which controls the centers, resisted a greater CRS role in improving the educational component. ``As the US tightens up on the kind of accountability they want ... there's a trade-off,'' another relief official says. ``...At what point does it risk killing the goose that laid the golden egg?''

CRS is also pulling out of its ``food-for-work'' program here, in which villagers are given food to build community projects or try a new way of making a living. ``The idea of food-for-work is an injection to get something going. [But] CRS was giving long-term food assistance,'' the development worker says.

Critics of food-for-work say that villagers often participate in a project simply to get the food, but abandon it once the food is withdrawn. They also say that once food-for-work has been used in one village, neighboring villages often will not start a project without a hand-out.

But for other agencies - less well-heeled than CRS - food aid is one of few resources available. ``There are no surplus monies to replace surplus food in an era of budget constraints,'' said Arthur Braunstein, a US AID official. Each year, the US pays its farmer billions of dollars for surpluses of a number of crops, and then must store, dump, or use them in some sort of food program.

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Mamadou Ndiaye, director of a development agency, says food-for-work can help improve people's lives long after the food is gone. In 1977, his agency began using CRS food to resettle peasants in eastern Senegal and encourage them to grow bananas. All food support has now been withdrawn, and more than 1,600 people live in the new villages. ``When the objectives are defined, the duration of food-for-work is defined, and the peasants know what will happen in the future, they are very ready to make their own choice,'' Mr. Ndiaye says.

Supporters say food is like insurance: Peasants cannot risk a change in lifestyle without something to fall back on. ``The mentality of people here - and poor people anywhere - is that [without aid] they cannot invest what little they have now into something they won't have for another five years,'' Ann Claxton, a food aid consultant in Dakar, says.

Yet critics say the ready supply of food aid encourages some agencies to design their projects around food. ``Instead of seeking resources following the conception of a project, the agency seeks a project where it can use food ... and this can distort the project design,'' says the development worker, who agrees with CRS's position.

Nobody is sure what the impact will be when the mothers and children at St. Laurent stop getting food rations next year. Officials hope other programs will pick up the slack, but it is very likely that the cuts will strain family food budgets. ``Will they suffer nutritionally? I don't think so,'' says an official who supports CRS's decision. ``...They could, but we just don't know.''

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