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Food Aid for Famine Relief? Not as Simple as It Appears
by Elizabeth Parsons

Food is an emotive issue, and famine is even more so. Presently, media stories of the famine in Central Africa are being designed to touch the emotions, often coming accompanied by images of sad, malnourished children with flies buzzing about their heads. We have seen such pictures so often over the years that many people who have never been to Africa very likely have no other conceptions of it. So while the hunger is real in many areas, there is a risk of oversimplifying the reasons for that hunger and the means needed to alleviate it. Christian communities wishing to give aid can do a great service by looking a little more deeply at the issues involved, thinking beyond the present circumstances, and advocating actions that can lead to better societies in the future.

Whether one agrees or not with a small minority of mostly white farmers having as much control over Zimbabwe’s economic activity as they did, it is still a fact that the commercial farms had massive infrastructure including irrigation equipment designed to provide water when rains didn’t come.

Famine is an ancient and recurring fact of African life. In recent history, the West has often attempted to help by providing food aid. But, in our era, the circumstances under which famine occurs often have to do with factors other than weather patterns. Likewise, appropriate famine relief has to consider more than emergency shipments of supplies. The cases of Zimbabwe and Zambia, two countries currently depicted as being most desperately in need of assistance, can be instructive.

Zimbabwe’s political chaos is often discussed in food terms, the metaphor of comparison being that the country has disintegrated from Africa’s breadbasket to its basket case. While President Robert Mugabe has portrayed the increasingly desperate condition of his citizenry as resulting from poor rains, his theoretically justifiable but practically untenable land reform programme is largely responsible for the people’s hunger. Whether one agrees or not with a small minority of mostly white farmers having as much control over Zimbabwe’s economic activity as they did, it is still a fact that the commercial farms had massive infrastructure including irrigation equipment designed to provide water when rains didn’t come. As the land invasions (a campaign by black Zimbabwean "war veterans" to seize white-owned farms, supported by the Mugabe government) progressed during 2000 and 2001, the farming sector repeatedly warned that disruptions of the planting cycle, indeed, many farmers’ stark inability to put anything into the ground, would eventually lead to food shortages as is now the case. President Mugabe and his colleagues have helped create a famine when one might not have taken place otherwise.

Mugabe easily castigates the West on all sorts of political and economic matters, many times with great historical correctness. But he has shown almost no hesitation in demanding that the West respond to his country’s humanitarian crisis by providing food aid. Logic and feeling suggest that this is the proper thing to do.

Looked at another way, however, foreign food aid also risks doing two things: first, lending credibility to the Mugabe government’s policies and, second, temporarily blunting a situation that may need to reach a sharp crisis point before the people will act. Could the best role for Western Christian communities be that of pressing for disengagement with Zimbabwe on this issue, if for no other reason than that desperation borne of hunger is a primary ingredient for social change? The African proverb "an empty stomach has no ears," customarily recited when warning Westerners not to teach ideology before feeding the people, could also lead starving Zimbabweans to stop listening to and believing a seductive rhetoric that is partially responsible for their country’s present paralysis.

The African proverb "an empty stomach has no ears," customarily recited when warning Westerners not to teach ideology before feeding the people, could also lead starving Zimbabweans to stop listening to and believing a seductive rhetoric that is partially responsible for their country’s present paralysis.

An attempt to promote the common welfare appears to be behind the Zambian government’s refusal to accept genetically modified maize that the U.S. has shipped, unbidden, to Central Africa. Actually, the issue is more convoluted. A lively public debate has been taking place and the argument seems to turn on the point that while cultivating GMOs (genetically modified organisms) entails disruption of traditional, small scale farming methods, there is no scientific evidence that simply eating genetically modified maize harms anyone. Any impact upon cultivation is crucial for a country striving to rebuild its economy based upon enormous potential for small-scale farming. Yet, people are hungry.

U.S. supporters of aid distribution point out major discrepancies in the Zambian government’s policy. They highlight the difference between effects on cultivation and effects on eating, calling attention to the fact that Zambian elite classes have been eating GMOs available in South African supermarket chains for years. Without consulting those most affected by drought, the central government has made a unilateral decision that may lead to many deaths. This is a grave issue that needs to be brought out if a truly inclusive, healthy public debate is to take place and if Zambia is going to evolve into a more vibrant society.

But the problem for the people of Zambia doesn’t stem solely from their own government. There is also the issue of how the GMOs reached Zambia’s borders in the first place and what this action says about Western respect for African countries’ decision making powers. In a striking encapsulation of the American philanthropic impulse gone overboard, an independent Zambian newspaper recorded that "[i]mmediately after it was reported that Southern Africa was facing starvation, the U.S. government dispatched ships with genetically manufactured yellow maize to the region without consulting authorities in the affected countries. [USAID assistant administrator Roger] Winter justified the sending of maize to the region without consulting African governments because that was the way the U.S. responded to crises." (The Post, 22 July 2002).

Is it possible that at least some portion of the argument for refusing the U.S.’ grain stems from the Zambian government’s desire to make decisions with a certain amount of independence and autonomy even if those decisions might ultimately be wrong?

While many questions should be asked concerning the Zambian government’s motivations for refusal, questions also need to be raised concerning Western involvement. Is it possible that at least some portion of the argument for refusing the U.S.’ grain stems from the Zambian government’s desire to make decisions with a certain amount of independence and autonomy even if those decisions might ultimately be wrong? In the haste of attempting to prove itself, the Zambian government may have chosen the wrong battle to fight. But, would the present friction between the U.S. and Zambian governments have been averted if the U.S. had first asked its potential recipients about their needs?

Could Western churches play a role here by countering the media’s superficial portrayals that can prompt well meant but perhaps poorly used food aid? Can the churches claim their prophetic roles in such circumstances, pressing for more critical examination of who is benefiting, who is suffering, and why?

The greater good, the life of the church and world increasingly depend upon nations and cultures working together with mutual respect and shared responsibility. Instances of appropriately providing food aid for famine relief call for governments that demonstrate genuine concern for their citizens and outside organizations that genuinely want to work with the people rather than simply applying actions. By advocating an attentive waiting, listening, and questioning approach over immediate action, the churches can help Westerners avoid simplistic conceptions of this continent and Africans attain more confidence to counter questionable government policies.

Liz Parsons and a Zimbabwean friend, the Rev. John Kaoma.

Elizabeth Parsons, an appointed missioner with the Episcopal Church USA, teaches at Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation in Kitwe, Zambia. During 2000 and 2001, she lived and worked in Zimbabwe. Liz may be reached by email at eparsons@post.harvard.edu

 

Related Links:

Incarnational Politics: Saving the World from "Democracy" by Elizabeth Parsons and John Kaoma