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Famine Cry: Iraq

May 5, 2003

Dear Field Exchange

As we prepare to mount a colossal humanitarian intervention in Iraq, we should be circumspect and humble about our past foodaid operations in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and other countries where an overreaction of food imports has done more harm than good.

Even in the short term, it is imperative that we do everything possible to restore the agricultural self-sufficiency of Iraqis and not deepen a cycle of dependency. Although as many as sixty percent of Iraqis had received rations distributed through the Oil for Food Program, this food parcel was not the primary or sole source of family nutrition; it was more often a supplement. Since the initiation of the Oil for Food Program in 1997, there had been measurable improvements in malnutrition and even a rise in obesity. The twelve years of international sanctions and economic embargo on Iraq have made the Oil for Food Program a necessary food provision program. Iraq had been effectively isolated from the outside world. In anticipation of this war, the Baathist regime had been stockpiling foodstuffs for several months. Moreover, indigenous grain production in Iraq had begun rebounding over the past two years. Individual families were stocking their household pantries with reserves for months before the initial bombing began.

In our enthusiasm to prevent unnecessary suffering in Iraq, we are about to repeat the very same mistakes that other huge food logistics enterprises have made. When it comes to food handouts, our guild is slow to learn.

The most common occupation in Iraq is farming. More Iraqis derive an income from agriculture than from the oil industry. Support and promotion of Iraq's agricultural economy will be as critical to Iraq's recovery as will be its petroleum reserves. In addition, the large-scale unemployment in Iraq is creating a security problem that only meaningful vocation can remedy. Iraq has some of the most fertile land in the Middle East - hence "the Fertile Crescent" - and this land is copiously irrigated by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Throughout the past decade, Iraq has been a net-exporter of dates and other produce. Are huge grain exports from affluent western countries to Iraq such a good idea? What the Iraqi farmer needs is reestablishment of trade links, restoration of international commerce, and the end to over a decade of economic isolation. What they need is trade, not aid.

The colossal exports of US and European-grown cereals does less for the subsistence farmer in Iraq, Afghanistan, or southern Africa than it does for the corporate interests of agribusiness and the modern western farmers receiving subsidies from their affluent governments. U.S. agricultural groups have been lobbying the Bush administration for months to ship American grown commodities to Iraq as this represented a new foreign export market for its surpluses.1

Large exports of grain from prosperous western countries to poorer ones - cynically referred to in the field as 'wheat dumping' - permits agribusinesses to legitimately dispense of the extraordinary surpluses of food that highly mechanized and subsidized western farmers produce. This is a supply-side solution and is not necessarily driven by demand. We should, rather, be exporting tools, irrigation technology, high-yield seeds, fertilizers, and technical expertise.

The nutritional challenges and interruptions in food supply in Iraq do not constitute a famine nor does it justify an over-reaction of food imports that may well compete or distract from efforts to increase local food production. Since food has become financially out of reach for people because of inflation, loss of income, and disruption of livelihoods then these root causes must be addressed, not only their symptoms. Cash-for-work programs and direct marketstimulus interventions that promote supply and drive prices down are effective antidotes to food crises. Employment programs, vouchers, and small cash grants given directly to displaced families-referred to as 'cash transfers'-are often effective, although still somewhat revolutionary and controversial among aid agencies that are used to distributing food rather than money. The injection of cash into a local market stimulates demand. Markets react by generating supply. Food suppliers will be attracted to the situation and beneficial transactions between food surplus areas and food shortage areas will be made.

Not unlike any large-scale commodity distribution program, a successful cash transfer project will require an experienced market analyst to monitor prices and effectively rebalance supply and demand variables and, ultimately, increase transactions on both sides. Although direct cash interventions are not a panacea, in many food crises this radical approach might be the most humane and intelligent gesture of compassion.

If the international community responds to Iraq as a famine - as we did in Afghanistan and numerous other humanitarian tragedies - the result will be the same: depression of market prices for locally grown commodities, disincentives for farmers to grow food, conversion of farmland to more profitable cash crops (read opium poppy), micro- nutrient deficiencies from eating unbalanced aid rations, and dependency on foreign food imports.

When the senior UN official said that the US should be "sending ships of wheat to the Persian Gulf along with ships of soldiers", did he even realize the irony of this statement? Although the coalition forces dropped bombs on Iraq, it would be cruel to dump our surplus wheat on them as well.

Gerald Martone
Director of Emergency Response
International Rescue Committee
122 East 42nd Street New York, NY 10168?
Tel: (212) 551-3061 Fax: (212) 551-3184

Show footnotes

1'U.S. Steps Up Plans for Food Aid to Iraq', Reuters, 18 March 2003, Richard Cowan

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Reference this page

Gerald Martone (). Famine Cry: Iraq. Field Exchange 19, July 2003. p12.



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