NO FREE LUNCH

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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