Ruben Vidaurreta



Bill Christeson, "Neither Food Nor Peace: U.S. Food Policy in Bangladesh," Pacific Research, X(4), Fourth Quarter, 1979.


Main Point:


This article is an attempt to show the pitfalls of the U.S.’s “Food-for Peace” aid policy towards Bangladesh.  Christeson argues that food aid given to impoverished nations is being used as a weapon to keep the Third World dependent on the U.S.  In fact, he argues, food provided by aid is being diverted away from the poor and hungry people of Bangladesh to the military and politically powerful of said country.  Also of grave consequence is the fact that this food policy is also distorting private and public efforts to develop Bangladesh’s own agriculture.




Food aid to Bangladesh was supposed to be intended to assist the government in dealing with its grain shortages in the wake of natural disasters and famine.  According to an International Labor Organization study in 1975, the percentage of people in Bangladesh that are considered to be extremely poor is an alarming 41%.  Poverty and malnutrition is so bad that in a 1962-64 study, 26% of the Bangladeshi children studied died before the age of 5.  The main cause of these shortages in food is famine.  But as Christeson points out, it is the responsibility of local government to maintain stockpiles to carry a country over during bad harvests as bad weather should always be expected.  So realistically it is bad government and not nature that is at fault.  It is also important to understand that not only does bad weather result in a scarcity of grain but that it also results in a scarcity of employment that leaves the impoverished labor force too poor to buy available foodstuffs.


Ration System and Distribution of Aid:


The logical question therefore is, “if this country is plagued with malnutrition and poverty, what is wrong with giving aid?”  The main problem doesn’t lie in the giving of aid, but rather, in the distribution of it.  The way that aid is distributed is based on the ration system.  The rationing system is divided among 4 categories; Urban, Priority, Rural, and a lumped category consisting of Relief and Food-for-Work.  Although less than 10% of the population lives in cities, the urban group receives approximately 23% of all food aid.  More interesting still is the fact that among this group only 27% of the poorest in this group receive access to this system as large communities of squatters are denied ration cards.  Urban consumers receive about 60% of their total grain consumption at ration prices, which are about ¼ to 1/3 of the current market grain prices.  The next group, the priority group, receives about 45% of grain aid.  This group largely consists of the military, police, civil servants, and industrial workforce.  This group clearly, especially in the case of the military, demonstrates the abuse of food aid.  Because this group consists of the most politically organized groups of citizens, the government uses the ration system to keep wage and political demands under control.  This is how the Bangladeshi government suppresses urban unrest.  In effect about 65% of food aid goes to the urban population which is relatively better off than their rural counterparts.  The rural population in turn only receives about 17% of total grain allocation but in fact more than 85% of this group does not see any of this aid.  The final category is the relief and food-for-work subset.  According to AID officials this is were most of the grain is smuggled out of the country by the corrupt entities that administer the projects.  A problem also associated with the food-for-work programs is that these programs are ineffective in times of famine, were they are most needed, because virtually no public labor projects can be done in those conditions.


Peasant Dependency:


In Bangladesh 51% of the agricultural land is owned by less than 10% of the rural households.  What this means is that about half of the rural population is landless and therefore dependent on share-cropping for subsistence.  The conditions that the share-croppers are forced into are almost to the point of being slave labor, but those that speak against these conditions are certain to have their share-cropping privileges taken away.  Christeson points out that, “if the food aid went primarily, as it should, to the rural masses, they would not be so easily dominated by the threat of daily starvation and might challenge the supremacy of the local landlords.”  Since the urban middle class is more politically active they are the ones who receive the bulk of the aid.  “The result of this political interplay is that the ration system has become the main ingredient in the patronage system by which the urban-rural elites perpetuate the status quo.”


Reason for American Involvement:


It is important to realize that the American decision to give food aid to Bangladesh is not at all a humanitarian cause.  It is clear that from the beginning the farm lobby and the State Department have dominated this program.  First the farm lobby realized that by giving away wheat surpluses it could maintain a fairly steady price of wheat, and secondly it also realized that by giving away wheat to poor countries the local populations of these countries would develop a taste for wheat thereby “ensuring future consumers for American surplus wheat.”  The State Department uses food aid as leverage when it tries to influence policy with Bangladesh.  “There are 3 reasons why Bangladesh is important.  The first is its potential as an exporter of natural gas and possibly oil; the second is its symbolic role in the world community; and third is its historical role as a battleground for proxy fights between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.”


Effects of Aid:


“By cutting into the urban market for grain through huge ration system sales, rice prices are kept artificially low and there are decreased incentives for farmers to invest in agricultural production.”  Because of food aid the local government has chosen priorities that direct scarce foreign exchange and domestic resources away from agriculture.  “More than just influencing investment, the existing food distribution system allows the government the political leeway to avoid structural changes in the feudal agricultural system.”  Another reason the Bangladeshi government does not push for reform is that if self-sufficiency in rice production were achieved and food donors decided to cut off food aid, the government would be left to cover the full cost of the ration system itself.  One Swedish aid study went as far as to say that the aid programs are just enough to create the humanitarian smokescreen needed for continued support of food aid deliveries.  Thus the U.S. and Bangladesh have a “mutually supportive relationship that not only does not encourage, but actually prevents Bangladesh from reaching the twin goals of food self-sufficiency and eliminating hunger.”


Changes to Food Aid Policy:


All of the following would help in the development of a stable Bangladeshi agricultural system:


  1. Better coordination from the donor countries.  This way the Bangladeshi government would not turn to other donors or sources of food aid if and when the U.S. changes its policy.
  2. End of Subsidies to the non-hungry. i.e. the military
  3. Increased Title II allotments.  This would place food grain in the hands of international relief agencies instead of the corruptible government.
  4. Better accounting of needs and results.  This is due to the possibility that the Bangladeshi government is producing misleading reports to back up its demand for continuing food aid.  And also improved means of distribution to the hungry.
  5. Price Stabilization.  This includes the stockpiling of rice to buffer price fluctuations in time of low supply and high demands.
  6. Calorie arbitrage.  Involves trading rice for other grains, such as wheat and sorghum, on the world market.
  7. Food aid during famine.  It is important to keep a closer track of food aids during these hardships as a greater proportion of the population becomes increasingly vulnerable to hunger and starvation.
  8. Phasing out of food aid.  The U.S. must make it clear that food aid is not a permanent security blanket.  Food aid should be used as means for making the necessary changes to achieve self-sufficiency.  Investment in agriculture and restructuring the agricultural economy away from feudalism must be induced in order to allow the people of Bangladesh a chance for development.