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The Political History of American Food Aid: An Uneasy Benevolence

Author(s):Riley, Barry
Reviewer(s):Barrett, Christopher B.

Published by EH.Net (June 2018)

Barry Riley, The Political History of American Food Aid: An Uneasy Benevolence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xxvii + 562 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-019-02-2887-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Christopher B. Barrett, School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University.

International food aid has long attracted attention from policymakers and scholars far out of proportion to its scale in the global economy. Concessional food shipments have always comprised a small share of international flows of food and a negligible increment of global food production and consumption. Yet a Google Scholar search on “food aid” and “economics” returns more than one million results. Since at least T.W. Schultz more than half a century ago, economists have written about food aid’s direct effects on the economic and nutritional well-being of recipients and, even more, on its indirect effects on outcomes as diverse as food markets and prices, agricultural producer incentives in donor and recipient countries, international trade flows, and conflict in recipient countries. In recent years, special attention has been paid to the political economy of food aid and to the distributional and efficiency effects of statutory restrictions placed on food aid donations by legislatures, especially by the United States Congress since the U.S. has long been, by far, the world’s largest food aid donor. The complex political processes behind those restrictions, however, indeed the motivations and machinations behind the very existence and scale of international food aid donations, has remained a bit of a black box.

Barry Riley has done a remarkable job filling that void. This new volume offers the definitive political history of U.S. food aid. Riley brings impeccable credentials to the task. Now retired after a long and distinguished career with various food aid agencies of the U.S. government and the World Bank, he wrote the volume while a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. At a time when economists too commonly grab a secondary data set and quickly write about a complex topic without taking time to master essential policy details, Riley’s work stands out as firmly rooted in an immersive understanding of the topic’s finest details. And this comprehensive historical account is meticulously sourced with primary documents from government records, media accounts of the day, and even personal letters.

Riley lucidly explains how and why the U.S. became the world’s primary food aid donor. He tells the story of the constant tension between the humanitarian impulse to assist those imperiled by natural disasters or war and the conservative instinct to resist foreign entanglements and fiscal commitments beyond the nation’s borders. He skillfully explains the time-varying electoral pressures faced by elected officials confronted by agricultural and maritime interests seeking assistance in lean times and reaching for profits opportunistically. He documents both the cynical and the idealistic geopolitical aims various nineteenth and twentieth century U.S. politicians had in deploying American farm surpluses around the world. The central role of key leaders — especially Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and Henry Kissinger — in bending others to their will comes through clearly. The case-specific drivers and outcomes of food aid donations are especially nicely illustrated in two chapters that go into particular depth on a single country: Chapter 13’s explanation of the Johnson administration’s management of food aid to India in the 1960s and Chapter 19’s analysis of the Reagan administration’s handling of the mid-1980s famine in Ethiopia.

Riley begins with late eighteenth-century Congressional debates when the framers of the Constitution and their colleagues were struggling to interpret what limits, if any, the new nation’s founding charter imposed on the federal government using scarce tax revenues to shower largesse on foreign populations. Those debates resumed periodically in response to a variety of foreign disasters of various sorts. Into the early years of the twentieth century, American food aid was episodic and modest in volume and impacts.

Riley then focuses attention on the first half of the twentieth century, when the ravages of two World Wars and the Great Depression, combined with rapid technological change in American agriculture, created a perfect storm of U.S. commodity surpluses, extended periods of depressed global demand, and acute humanitarian need. This period put the existential questions surrounding U.S. food aid to rest. Programs became permanent and expansive. That period begat the Agricultural Adjustment Acts of 1933 and 1938, which launched large-scale farm support programs that insinuated the federal government into commodity markets. This laid the foundation for 1954’s passage of the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, Public Law 480, which created the main U.S. food aid programs ever since. The program’s renaming in the Food for Peace Act of 1966 signaled the growing use of food aid as a foreign policy tool under the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. The aims varied with the political leanings of the U.S. government of the day: to foster economic development and relieve world hunger, to reward foreign allies and punish those regimes that strayed too near the Soviet orbit, to advance human rights, or to promote American exports. Both Democratic and Republican administrations, however, proved overconfident in food aid’s ability to bend the world to American will.

As food aid’s ineffectiveness as a foreign policy tool and as the fiscal imperative of extracting the U.S. government from the business of propping up grain prices as a buyer of last resort both became clear, the scale of U.S. food aid relative to commercial exports and the domestic food economy has steadily declined since the 1970s. The dominant voices in recent food aid debates have thus been the international development and humanitarian organizations, as well as the agribusinesses — mainly processors, not farmers — and maritime interests that profit from Congressionally-imposed statutory restrictions on commodity and ocean freight procurement. In the twenty-first century, both Democratic and Republican administrations have consistently advocated for reforms to enhance the efficiency and timeliness of increasingly scarce humanitarian food aid. But the complex political economy that begat a permanent and briefly-generous U.S. food aid program now complicates the Congressional politics of reform. Without understanding the political history of U.S. food aid, it’s hard to make sense of the current policy debate.

In twenty-five years of studying food aid, I have probably read the vast majority of published studies on the topic. Rarely have I learned so much as from Riley’s impressive and beautifully written history. This volume is an indispensable reference for anyone studying or writing about U.S. food aid programs. U.S. food aid policy has always reflected a shifting balance among a range of objectives. Thus it has always been deeply political. The complexities of U.S. Congressional authorization and appropriations processes often make it difficult to identify the drivers of policy decisions. Thanks to Barry Riley’s lucid historical account, it is far easier for contemporary policy analysts to appreciate the history dependence of current economic policy.

Christopher B. Barrett is the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics at Cornell University. He has written extensively on the economics of food aid and food assistance programs and is co-author (with Daniel G. Maxwell) of Food Aid after Fifty Years: Recasting Its Role and co-editor (with Julia Steets and Andrea Binder) of Uniting on Food Assistance: The Case for Transatlantic Cooperation.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII