27 January 2008

Hunger and aid

From the current 'Economist' (subscription):
[D]ealing with hunger hardly requires a doctorate in the biochemistry of the human body. Breast-feeding advice, food supplements and better hygiene all make a big difference. Most countries know what to do and run pilot programmes that work. But they rarely find the money for full-scale national efforts; the international outfits that might help are ... fragmented and dysfunctional. ... [M]oney for improving nutrition would be the most effective sort of aid around. At the moment, roughly $300m of aid goes to basic nutrition each year, less than $2 for each child below two in the 20 worst affected countries. In contrast, HIV/AIDS, which causes fewer deaths than child malnutrition, received $2.2 billion—$67 per person with HIV in all countries (including rich ones).
On what basis are aid funds allocated? Availability of tv footage? The caprice of celebrity donors? Political correctness? All probably play a part. The one criterion that doesn't seem relevant is efficiency. Of course, it's not quite that simple: many of the obstacles to rational resource allocation are probably third world governments that have little interest in looking after their populations, and every interest in syphoning off aid funds or otherwise obstructing, for their own narrow purposes, aid workers. That probably diverts resources away from some of the areas in most desperate need. A Social Policy Bond regime targeting basic health indicators in the developing world could go a long way toward redressing these perverse incentives, perhaps by persuading recalcitrant governments to take long golfing holidays.

Meanwhile it's worth comparing the £300 million that the rich world gives to alleviate hunger in the poor countries to the amount it lavishes on its own farmers: in 2006 that amounted to $268 billion according to the OECD. Yes, you read that right: billion. To put it another way: taxpayers in the rich world give 89 times as much to their own agriculture sector as they do to starving people in the third world. In return we get: a devasted rural environment, the destruction of wildlife and bloated oligopolistic agribusiness corporates, and thousands of highly skilled lobbyists adept at maintaining the status quo.

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