“Food Bungle in Bangladesh”
by Donald F. McHenry and Kai Bird
summary by Ryan Steed
By the end of the 1970s, U.S.
food aid is acknowledged to be of detriment towards the recipient country. Bangladesh,
according to McHenry, is a prime example of a case where foreign politics take
priority over humanitarian acts. On
November twelfth of 1970, a tidal wave destroyed a half million tons of food
grain along and killed 270,000 people.
Great Britain, Japan,
Germany, and Sweden
committed nearly eight million tons of food grains – “but less than 10 per cent
of it has fed hungry people.”
The rationing system
argues this is happening because of inequitable distribution. Bangladesh
distributes the donated food grains through a rationing system that seems to
benefit only “the better-off urban middle class population and prevent any
urban unrest which might undermine the Dacca
government.” Most of the donated food
grains ended up being sold to this middle class while the rest were relegated
out to the poor as part of day labor. Of
all the distributed “ration cards” only roughly one third were in the hands of
people that truly needed them. The
rationing system actually managed to raise the price of rice significantly – so
much that land-owning people were forced to sell their land to purchase these
rations. Suddenly, without land, it is
much harder to obtain a ration card.
argues the poor distribution of food aid is not entirely the fault of Dacca
politics however. The American food
grain donations were made possible through Public Law 480 – “a law which was
originally designed to allow the federal government to send abroad surplus
grains which, if sold on the U.S. market would significantly lower the price
received by American farmers.” Basically
this artificially decreases domestic supply thus keeping prices high and
farmers in business. There were two
parts to PL 480, Title I and Title II.
Essentially, Title II food aid is contracted out by the U.S.
government while Title I food aid leaves distribution up to the recipient
government. Curiously 75 per cent of all
the food aid was Title I. McHenry then
claims that “no amount of food aid inequitably distributed through a
politically motivated ration system can alleviate perennial malnutrition.”
McHenry has established that cheep foreign
food grain hurts Bangladesh
farmers because they cannot compete with the low prices, but what sort of aid
would be the best? Monetary aid would be
a viable alternative if it were not for the fact that “it is much easier to
order a shipment of food through the embassy in Washington
than to spend time and money on a domestic procurement program.”
McHenry warns us not be fooled
into thinking that the U.S.
was aiding Bangladesh
purely out of humanitarian reasons. Not
only does the food aid serve to keep domestic grain prices up as previously
mentioned, but to “exercise political leverage in the Indian subcontinent.” Basically, this aid reduces Bangladesh’s
reliance on India. U.S.
hopes are that Bangladesh
would restore some stability to the Indian subcontinent. Because of this strategy, U.S.
aid increased substantially in 1975 not only because of the fall famine, but
mostly because the Dacca government
converted to a one-party presidential rule.
Lower food prices would “diffuse the political opposition.”
leverage was also gained by the U.S.
threatening to stop foreign aid. Bangladesh
was exporting to Cuba
– an American blacklisted country – but promptly stopped at the threat of an
McHenry manages to point out
that the U.S.
does try to help Bangladesh
develop as a country through food aid as well.
Aid “should be tied to specific development performance on the part of
the Dacca regime and used as
leverage on the recipient government to ensure development priorities.” Essentially, the U.S.
does not want to aid for free in that it wants Bangladesh
to attempt to right itself and develop as a country. One idea put forth by the U.S.
government to help development include keeping ration prices somewhat high to
keep farmers from going out of business.
McHenry believes that “we have
allowed our desire to support a politically stable and anti-Indian Dacca
government to override the goal of economic development.” Furthermore, it will be very difficult to end
the perennial starvation with food aid alone.
McHenry claims that an internal redistribution process from within is
the best stepping stone to developing a Third World
country. Utter dependence on other
nations is no way to build a nation.