“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.  The U.S., Great Britain, Japan, Canada, West 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

            McHenry 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.

            McHenry 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.”


Political intentions

            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.”

            Political 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 aid cut-off.


Development priorities

            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.