Thursday, September 20, 2007

Local Charity

CARE recently made the daring move of rejecting federal money in their fight to feed the hungry. In fact, they turned down $180 million in order to first make themselves more efficient and second to help not just feed the poor in Africa, but to shore up their economies. The NYTimes reported this about a month ago in "A Better Way to Feed the Hungry" and I think this aspect of buying locally deserves some attention in light of an EatLocalChallenge. What's behind CARE's move?

Impoverished countries around the world typically get their food aid from donated food that comes from American farmers. In the case the NYTimes cites, the US government buys that food from farmers and donates them to overseas charities which then sell that food as a fundraising technique to run their programs. Three problems, only one of which that article emphasizes occur: first, since the US charities can sell the goods at subsidized prices local farmers cannot compete and thus loose the ability to keep themselves out of poverty; second, the environmental impact of such practices are huge, not just in the amount of carbon (etc) used to ship the food over there, but in the eradication of a local farming economy that can prevent erosion, droughts, etc.; and third, American farmers are paid to produce a single crop (or fewer crops), reducing our own sustainability and inflating prices artificially because farmers sell to the government what they can't sell to the public. I won't comment on this last issue because quite frankly I don't know anything about it.

I'll keep my comments on the second issue, the effect on local farming abroad, brief, too, because I know less about it. Last semester, however, I took a Postcolonialism course (the kind Vanishing Shakespeare would seriously disapprove of!) where we watched part of a documentary voiced over by Jamaica Kincaid based on her novel A Small Place. The video, Life + Debt included stories from Jamaican farmers who were forced to stop growing the crops best suited for their climate because they were being undersold by American imports and their struggles in going from a thriving farm to being unable to support their families because they couldn't farm. In one memorable scene, the wider effects of this policy were shown as milk farmers, who now lost a thriving local demand for their product, would milk their cows daily and then pour the milk onto the diary floor. While the video focuses on the role the IMF plays, part of the underlying issue is that American food is imported into the country.

But to turn to the first issue and how the principals of buying local apply. If we challenge ourselves to buy locally because of our own health (the freshness of our food), ethical standards (we can insure that organic and fair trade practices, which benefit both humans and animals are being followed...check out Horizon milk on Google if you're certain they always are) and environmental (less travel) then why do we not encourage charities to follow the same pattern? Heifer International (which I know I mention all the time -- it's my favorite charity!) has always made this a practice because they are interested not just in feeding the hungry, but in eradicating the conditions which produced it. So for CARE to take a similar track is an encouraging sign both for the environment and for a shift in the way charity is handled from giving people fish to giving them the tools to fish. The NYTimes article concludes by noting the criticism that CARE has faced from other aid groups who fear they will loose federal funding altogether if they challenge the funding. What this demonstrates is the power of the American food lobby that would prefer to make charity another market for American goods and in the process stifles American local growth as well. But that's a post (or comment) for someone who knows something about that topic!

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