Thursday, August 16, 2007

CARE to USAID: Shove it, Part Deux

As promised, a follow-up on my last blog post.

Agricultural policy in Canada and the United States, as well as the European Union, really has its priorities backwards. The lands of plenty grow enough food to feed half the world and then some -- yet are extremely regressive when it comes to protecting themselves against the developing world.

Nearly twenty years ago, Dame Eugenia Charles -- the late Prime Minister of the island of Domenica -- complained that the country could be well on the way to prosperity if the US would allow it to provide just one out of every one thousand oranges sold in the country. Dame Eugenia said the response of the US agricultural lobby always was, "Sorry, but we're not ready for reciprocity."

Reciprocity? How about fair trade, which is what developing countries reasonably ask for?

Here in Canada, we have powerful agricultural co-ops which on the one hand ensure a fair price for all but on the other hand distorts the market overseas. The United States is much more cutthroat but even it has huge farm subsidies -- in fact, many farmers are paid off not to grow crops: Payment in Kind. And of course, the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy has written the book on trade distortion.

Which leads to the issue of food aid.

Because we grow a surplus more years than not, we have plenty to go around. Rather than store that food for lean years (when there's drought or other natural disasters) we practically give it away, even dump it, on the foreign market. For countries experiencing food shortages that's not always a bad thing; after all, it's a bad thing to see people die from starvation. But when those countries have home-grown farm industries and their farmers are forced into bankruptcy because we see keeping our farmers from going under as more important -- well, that's a problem.

Rather than tackle the disease which is inequity in trade, we go after the short term symptoms and only make the disease fester more. We tie food aid to other concessions -- such as their reducing trade and services barriers, while we build up the wall even more. Far better would be reducing or eliminating foreign debt while encouraging co-ops or microcredit in those countries.

Add in the cooperation of government which directs a big part of foreign aid and it really wreaks. We give third world nations the chaff along with the grain. So to see CARE -- the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere -- take the stand it did today and saying no more to US government aid, even though it'll shrink their budget by about $45 million per year, is truly encouraging. The feds there also give to some other non-governmental groups and they're probably mulling it over telling USAID to screw off as well. I hope they do.

Of course, the US Constitution bans aid to religious groups (not that it's stopped Dubya from trying any which way to get around that rule). That's not the case in Canada, where there is long standing taxpayer-funded support for faith-based charities (I guess we've figured out the balance between assistance and prosletyzing). In fact, during the weeks before Easter, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) matches donations made to a number of religious groups on a six to one ratio. Fortunately, the government is mostly hands-off in the oversight of these funds since the churches spend the money prudently and on targeted projects that have realistic potential for self-sufficiency which should be the goal of development. But if those donations were pegged to food aid, I'm sure the churches would balk at that.

Recently, PMS has indicated he wants to focus foreign aid on a select number of countries where there's hope. That's short sighted. What I'd like to see is: Fair trade practices, including giving preference to local farmers and craftspeople, not multinational sweat shops and slave labour camps; aid tied to human rights and democratic reforms; and food aid that's a hand up, not a foot stomp.

And of course, I'd like Canada to hit the target Lester Pearson set 40 years ago of 0.7% GDP. Whether that's money or aid-in-kind is not the point; the point is getting to the target and making the sure the money's spent wisely for a change. Starting with making sure our farmers are treated well while those overseas aren't punished for our greed.

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