Danny Yee >> Economics & Social Justice

The Hunger Site - Criticism

The "Hunger Site" is a good publicity stunt, but I have some serious concerns about it:

An article in Adbusters Magazine 29 (no longer online unfortunately) offers some similar criticisms.

A different concern is the extent to which food donations are actually useful. I append a long analysis that has been going around by email but which I haven't seen on a web site anywhere (if you know who wrote the leading summary let me know and I'll credit them).


Note: in December 2000 the World Food Program ended its relationship with the Hunger Site.

Before you go clicking to stop hunger, you might want to reflect upon this article about the HungerSite (see below). The writer suggests that far from alleviating hunger, initiatives such as the HungerSite can actually undermine local food production and promote dependence on imported food. She also notes that the causes of hunger are rarely inadequate food, but rather corruption, inadequate distribution systems and hoarding. I've had an association with the euphemistically named "international development" sector for the last seven years, and there is much in the article that reflects my own experience.

The HungerSite is intended to promote maximum feel-good for people out in cyberspace (ie. in rich countries), and maximum market share for multinationals. But what of its supposed beneficiaries in newly/un-industrialised countries?? I'm worried that at best they don't benefit and at worst they're further oppressed.

I have decided against clicking on the HungerSite and instead have chosen to distribute this email to anyone who sends me the web address (I've now had it numerous times!!).

For those of us with not much time and/or family commitments which mean we can't get involved in full-on every-day campaign or solidarity work, there are still plenty of small things that we can do on a daily or irregular can't get involved in full-on every-day campaign or solidarity work, there are still plenty of small things that we can do on a daily or irregular basis - an hour here or there packing boxes for East Timor, a couple of phone calls on a campaign phone tree, a bit of typing or enveloping for a local environment group, a letter to the local paper or helping a refugee family down the street. If you're looking to help out and feel good, I commend these sorts of activities over the HungerSite any day!

At the very least, if you want to do good for people who are hungry, then leave the HungerSite alone ...

-----Original Message-----
From: Alice Campbell <campbell_ali@yahoo.co.uk>
Date: Thursday, 21 October 1999 23:14
Subject: AFPN: Corporate Hunger: Long

Dear all,

The World Food Program (WFP) "Hunger Site" has reappeared in numerous forums over the past few months and - particularly given current discussions around WTO - it is probably not untimely to present a different opinion about who this sort of initiative really serves. Below is a summation of discussions I have had with numerous people over the past 9 months or so since the hunger site appeared. Please forgive such a long posting - and I certainly do not mean to imply that those who distribute the notice about the hunger site have anything less than good intentions - my "excuse" is I have spent the past nine months travelling back & forth from Bangladesh, Indonesia & Timor where these sorts of programs are having devastating effects of women's livelihoods and, as currently implemented at least, really only serve to perpetuate the corporate agenda. I hope this offers a different perspective. Please also forgive any typos...:0) and do contact me privately if you would like any specific references.


The most recent comprehensive, independent study on Food Aid Policy (Clay,Pillai & Benson 1998, Overseas Development Institute) highlighted in some very limited cases (<5%) staple food donations (such as that being promoted by WFP on the Hunger Site) do save lives. But even then, the distribution and monitoring mechanisms have to be gender-specific and socioeconomically targeted, and only one part of an overall strategy if it is to have any more than a negligible impact.

If food donations are given outside situations of complete market collapse, the donations are likely to actively and dramatically undermine food security unless also coupled with basic public health measures - and in these situations Clay et. al. found the usefulness of food aid to be negligible. Two notable case examples of this include Kinfu (1999) who found food donations had no impact whatsoever on diminishing hunger in women and children in war-torn Ethiopia, and major influences on nutrition instead included public health conditions (water, sanitation etc), number of children under 5 years old (i.e. fertility/ breastfeeding) and the availability of local foods.

The second is a recent study by Dr. Peter Aaby whose analysis (BMJ, 319, 1999) of food aid efficacy in a recent disaster in Guinea-Bissau. This is a particularly interesting study as it *does* qualify as one of the <5% situations where some food aid was probably warranted. Interestingly, however, Aaby also found factors such as public health conditions, overcrowding and mass population shifting had a much greater impact on alleviating hunger.

Bravely, Aaby also highlights that WFP had no idea where most of the refugees were in Guinea-Bissau and distributed food where it was most convenient for them - as opposed to where the real need might have been.

Most of the people who suffer as a direct result of food aid are women. The majority of food donations are either worthless (as in the case of wheat dumping) or sent with a clear intention of "creating new markets" - and often a combination of both. Local food production (small & collective farms, market gardens, household gardens, etc) are often the only safeguard against malnutrition in times of crises and situations of poverty. Obviously these foods directly feed families and communities, but as highlighted by a colleague, having even only a few yams to sell can also be an essential measure in situations of extreme poverty. When food aid floods the market it often undermines the production and movement of local foods. It can alter the entire food patterns in communities and cultures - i.e. it creates dependencies on imported products (e.g. the case of tinned tuna in PNG fishing villages, and wheat in Bangladesh).

Even in the recent Balkans crisis, there was a considerable quantity of local foods available. WHO data suggests some food aid was probably needed for some specific groups of refugees at a specific point in time. However, food and medicine donations flooded the camps. WHO had to put up a website asking companies to *stop* sending aid products. In particular as much as 50% of the medicines sent were out of date, much food was downright dangerous, or the products were un-needed (as in the several tonnes of Chapstick which were sent - but according to the company rep: "If there's one thing a refugee needs, its chapstick"). The most shameful were those companies who refused to send needed products unless aid agencies also accepted the un-needed products (esp. tonnes of expired medicines). Some (but not many) aid agencies overcame these problems by purchasing the products they needed at cost and wholesale prices.

There is I think a common perception that hunger is determined by a "lack of food" which can be alleviated by giving it. Before "clicking" on the Hunger Site we might do well to remember that in most (95%+) cases, hunger along with access to basic public health & education resources - is much more significantly related to the inequitable distribution of these & economic resources at household, community, national & international levels rather than any lack of quantity per se. Therefore, to alleviate hunger the challenge lies a radical redistribution of resources & their consumption. To evaluate how effective the "hunger site" might be in achieving this, ask this: where will most of the money donated by the corporate sponsors go? Answer: to other multinational (food) companies and the (usually) highly paid, imported consultants employed by the multilateral agencies who earn more in one day than most Third World women earn in a year.

And of course I have no need to say on this list, the presence of a multilateral agency - such as the WFP, UNDP, World Bank, UNICEF etc. does not automatically imply that the program is appropriate.

A brief herstory revision:

Larry Summers, Deputy Secretary of the US Treasury and the former Chief Economist of the World Bank currently represents the US at most sustainable development forums (incl. WFP and FAO). This is the same man famous for advocating "the shipping of more toxic wastes to low income countries because people there die early anyway and they have less income earning potential so their lives are less valuable" (Korten 1997). UNDP now of course accepts corporate $$$ from Rio Tinto, a range of nuclear power companies, and other industry profit machines. And UNICEF has just entered into a "Humanitarian Forum" with Nestle, and co-chaired by a gas company whose human rights record in Burma and other places is undoubtedly amongst the worst in the world (forced labour, massive land displacement of Indigenous peoples and farmers, etc).

In the early 80's WFP was found to be dispensing powdered milk products (food aid) to Indonesian women for their babies packed in plastic bands, sealed with a rubber band and with no labelling or instructions provided. This was seen as a cheap and effective way of getting women into the health clinics (even though the side effects of formula feeding on child health, women's health and fertility were well known by this stage, and breached the already-established WHO regulations). In 1999, WFP seems to have progressed no further. In conjunction with UNICEF they are currently running food aid programs in Indonesia using exactly the same distribution mechamism (health clinics) in which women must *pay* cash for food *aid* (mostly wheat and other non-local foods). UNICEF is working to make these food aid products commercially available in the "hope they will remain affordable". Of course, if they do remain affordable a willing market has already been created through the food aid program (only those with a high status can afford the food as "aid" and so it becomes "desirable"). If the foods don't remain affordable a continuing market is ensured through the ongoing "need" for food aid. The former might not be such an issue if it did not result in population shifts of land-holders as they are displaced from their lands, or diminished the income-earning capacity of women.

WFP and UNICEF also endorse the former Premier Kennett's Indonesian food aid program - even despite UNICEF claiming that consumption of the food is "dangerous" (their words). Indeed, a recent Independent delegation to Indonesia (1998 Food Security & Fair Trade Council) found that much of what had been called food "aid" was in fact food dumping of inferior and un-needed products explicitly intended to create new market dependencies and often with full cooperation and encouragement from Governments and Multilateral agencies. And to top it off, WFP's own evaluation of their own programs (1993) found that they were largely ineffective, cumbersome and inherently fraught with community-level problems...which the EU later (1996) described as including discrimination against the poor (read: women), and distribution more likely to favour military and public service

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