Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Food Aid

I spent all last week attending a conference on food aid in Kansas City, followed by two days of grueling-yet-fascinating - training and a Saturday full of catch up work. Although it was an exhausting week, now that I'm a few days out, I can reflect a little bit.

US Food Aid takes many forms and is administered under several different government programs, to many different ends (and under lots of controversy). My company is one of a zillion development organizations that bids to win commodities from the US government, with the intent of shipping them overseas, either for food emergencies (famines, conflict, and usually temporary in nature) or development work (more longstanding programs). One of the more fascinating aspects of these programs is how they involve almost all aspects of our economy - suppliers/farmers, freight forwarders, private voluntary organizations (PVOs), the US Dept of Agriculture (USDA), US Agency for International Development (USAID), millers, shipping agents, shipping companies, port authority, customs; you name it, we got them involved.

I tried to explain this to a gentlement hitting on me at the bar last thursday (ok, what would YOU say when asked what you do?) and his response was, "Oh, like the Iran-Contra!"

Um......not exactly.

But, food aid comes under the gun of critics quite often. At best, it's claimed as a mechanism for US subsidized commodities (usually wheat, soybeans, corn and the like) to be dumped in unsuspecting foreign markets, bottoming out the local prices. At worst - and this is how it is perceived by the government in Zambia - a chance to poison the locals with dangerous GMO's. It has a long and sordid history. I'm too lazy to go hunting for the links right now, but most aid can be trailed back to the Post World War passage of the Marshall Plan, meant to rebuild Europe and Europeans.

I'm not sure what to think about all this, but I do enjoy the controversy. In fact, having gone thorugh a liberal grad school, I'd say I'm pretty well aware of the criticisms, so it's interesting to be on the business end of it. I took this job, in part, to learn more about food aid. After this week, I see that it truly is an industry in and of itself and I've got tons left to learn. Even though it was painful at the time, I count myself lucky that I work in an industry that keeps me engaged, keeps me learning and keeps me wondering what will happen next.

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