Wednesday, August 15, 2007

charity and the market

I’d rather give my money to CARE than to the government, which would rather give taxpayer money to corporate farmers than to poor people:

CARE, one of the world’s biggest charities, is walking away from some $45 million a year in federal financing, saying American food aid is not only plagued with inefficiencies, but also may hurt some of the very poor people it aims to help.

CARE’s decision is focused on the practice of selling tons of often heavily subsidized American farm products in African countries that in some cases, it says, compete with the crops of struggling local farmers.

The charity says it will phase out its use of the practice by 2009. But it has already deeply divided the world of food aid and has spurred growing criticism of the practice as Congress considers a new farm bill.
Here we see the crucial text: the farm bill. As with the perennial energy bill, these words should alert the careful reader that the con is on.
. . . Peter J. Matlon, a Nairobi-based agricultural economist and a managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, said in an interview that converting American commodities into cash for development was a case of “the tail wagging the dog,” with domestic farm policies in the United States shaping hunger-fighting methods abroad.

. . .

The Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan, investigative arm of Congress, also concluded this year that the system was “inherently inefficient.” CARE and Catholic Relief Services — who rank first and second in money raised through the current system — say they recover only 70 to 80 percent of what the United States paid for the commodities and shipping.
CARE thinks traditional forms of charity are unsustainable, and works to promote development instead. This is better for everyone involved. Teaching a man to fish and all that.
One of those programs could be seen in action one recent afternoon in the Kenyan village of Poche. CARE has helped local women bypass local middlemen to sell pineapples at better prices in Nairobi’s big supermarkets, 10 hours away by road.

. . .

CARE’s idea is that a profitable business is more likely than a charitable venture to survive when foreign aid runs out.

“What’s happened to humanitarian organizations over the years is that a lot of us have become contractors on behalf of the government,” said Mr. Odo of CARE. “That’s sad but true. It compromised our ability to speak up when things went wrong.”
This story exposes the falseness of the “free market” story the U.S. likes to tell about itself. Rather than funding sustainable ventures with equals, the government would prefer to shovel money at its corporate farmers to provide handouts to poor nations that may do more harm than good. The spigot from U.S. taxpayers to corporations is always open full, even when the government tells us we are giving to the needy. This corporate giveaway is shrouded in the following lie: this is the market at its finest, allowing us to live well enough to give freely. Everyone wins.

Running our foreign policy on the dual principles of militarism and charity poisons our country and those we interact with. It is reminiscent of a feudal lord tossing a few alms to his peasants every Christmas, then exploiting/ignoring them the rest of the year. This approach is unsustainable in a world where people in rising nations are not content to live second-best lives.

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