September 25, 2007

THE INCREASING NUMBERS OF WOMEN smuggling donated U.S. flour across the border to sell in Peru are evidence that food aid is a more complex story than feeding the hungry. Some 850,000 Bolivians-one in eight-receive donated food, distributed primarily by U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Before donated wheat began to arrive in 1954, the country was self-sufficient in that grain; now the estimated annual deficit reaches 170,000 metric tons. White bread and noodles, once luxuries, have replaced whole grains as staples of the poor, contribut- ing, some claim, to widespread nutritional deficiencies. U.S. food donations also follow a distinctly political agenda. Economist Julio Prudencio explains, "If you look at our history, food aid has increased or dropped significantly depending on whether the government in power won U.S. approval." U.S. AID's country plan for 1987-1988 states that an objective of food aid is to "minimize economic hardships and political unrest which will arise as the govern- ment shifts from a highly subsidized economy to a free market one." As part of this strategy, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), a U.S. NGO, initiated "Food for Work" programs in 1985. Last year 100,000 Bolivians, mostly women, did heavy manual labor in exchange for donated flour, oil and milk powder. The work included building and paving roads, and cleaning ditches and rivers. Few safety measures are taken and injuries are frequent. The other principal mechanism for distributing project food aid is the confederation of 4,000 mothers clubs funded through Catholic Relief Services, a U.S. NGO. In return for food, some 300,000 women pay weekly contributions, an important source of income for the donor agencies. Observ- ers ranging from AID evaluators to local NGOs agree that the clubs have fostered dependency and passivity, and have undermined community developmentefforts. (CRS is sched- uled to pull out of food aid administration in September.) NGOs trying to set up shantytown programs are con- fronted with people demanding food handouts. Hilda Villarroel, director of the Center for Self-Managed Develop- ment which runs literacy and health education programs in 50 poor neighborhoods in the La Paz area, complains that "the women are always asking us for food. Many of their husbands don't want them to join unless they can bring something home." Food aid also tends to promote corruption and mothers club leaders have been known to reserve more than their share for family and friends. In early 1990, the United States threatened to cut off project food aid because of widespread misuse. During the 1989 election campaign, food aid was used in some areas to persuade voters to cast their ballot for the governing parties. A member of an ADRA mothers club recalls, "The moment we were elected to head the club, representatives from the mayor's office came and told us we had to join the ADN [political party of ex-dictator Hugo Banzer]. We refused, so we were asked to leave and new elections were called." After 35 years of allowing food to flow into the country unrestricted, the Bolivian House of Deputies passed a law last September to regulate food aid by controlling the amount delivered and its destination. It also requires that 20% of U.S. project food aid must consist of products purchased locally. And it mandates that food aid be terminated within ten years. The law now languishes in the Senate, where U.S. pressure threatens to bury it. Ambassador Richard Gelbard warned that the law could affect U.S. wheat donations, and would harm social programs linked to such aid. The recipients of aid have also organized to demand better terms from the donating agencies. "Getting food handouts in exchange for building roads," says Teresa Paco, One hundred thousand Bolivians, mostly women, took part in U.S.-funded "food for work" programs last year leader of the Committee of Food Aid Recipients made up of women from 60 projects in the El Alto shantytowns, "that's not a gift, that's exploitation. We don't want the humiliation of donations, we want tools to become productive and make a decent living."

Tags: Bolivia, Peru, food aid, smuggling, NGOs

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