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Re: RE: [casi-analysis] food and aid - a rant

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Many, many thanks for this Dan.

Some observations, which are mainly poorly-informed devil's advocacy, but
might help clarify precisely who your criticisms are directed against, and
what people should be pressuring them to do about it?

Apologies if they're obvious/fatuous/already taken into account.

1) I think the link between decreased food production and malnutrition
needs to be positively established. Presumably your critics may say that
although domestic food production has evidently decreased, imports under
newly liberalised trade conditions may have increased, which may even have
brought the price of basic foodstuffs down. See, for instance, yesterday's
article on Islam Online (
). This opens with the contradictory statement that “[t]he costs of gas and
food are going up so high; so even if we make more now, everything is
costing more”, despite the fact that the correspondent's same informer
claims that this situation is exacerbated for food producers precisely
becuase some foodstuffs are now cheaper: “In Saddam’s days we grew all our
own vegetables to sell … but now so many are coming from outside of Iraq
and it is causing us to sell them for less. So I make less profit now, and
I have nine people to take care of, and it has made my life very

One thing to determine, then, would be whether food prices have indeed gone
down or up - maybe the data isn't available, but maybe someone's keeping an
eye on it (or at least on an RPI or another inflation index)?

This doesn't affect the main thrust of your argument, which is that
ordinary Iraqis are evidently in basic humanitarian trouble (the
malnutrition figures are in themselves an argument for food aid). There is
a question, though, about whether this is because food is scarcer and thus
more expensive, or whether people are just earning so little, so
irregularly, that they can't afford to buy food even if it is nominally
cheaper. There may also be reasons apart from underproduction why food is
expensive even if it's being imported (principally, I suspect, things like
increased costs of transportation with rocketing oil prices and insecurity
etc. etc.) You don't want to set yourself up, though, for a shallow 'oh
it's OK, market liberalisation feeds everyone even if no-one's farming
anymore' critique (again, you just need to wave the malnutrition statistics
in their fat faces).

3) For related reasons I'm unsure about an argument that goes:
'infrastructure needs to wait until everyone's fed'. If it is the case that
people can't buy food because they're not earning enough even if food is
nominally cheaper, then getting the economy back on its feet through better
communications etc. isn't necessarily stupid - it may just be long-termist.
That doesn't excuse the US and the UK not providing extra funds to feed
people through aid if it's necessary in the short term, but there
presumably is a genuine question about whether it's sensible to limit
funding for long-term reconstruction for the purposes of immediate aid.
Which brings me to...

...4) Are you sure no-one's providing additional food aid? What are the
WFP, for instance, doing Iraq-wise? It's not immediately surprising,
surely, that DfID and World Bank *reconstruction* plans minimise aid
expenditure in favour of capital-building projects - they're obviously
different things. Again, this doesn't detract from your main argument - the
malnutrition figures suggest that if food aid is being provided, it isn't
working or isn't enough - but DfID, the WB and the like may not be the
right targets?

5) Obviously you're aware that except for severe famines, malnutrition is
not just caused by food shortages. Often much more significant are levels
of chronic and infectious disease (and vice-versa, of course: diseases
reduce nutrient uptake and raise people's calorific requirements). These
tend to be increased by poor infrastructure, displacement, urban fighting,
etc. etc. (hence elevated levels of infant mortality, whose primary cause
is arguably usually disease, exacerbated by malnutrition, exacerbated by
disease...). In other words, the obvious point that malnutrition, disease
and social dislocation are an interlinked matrix which may not be solvable
simply by food aid. You should point this out: we need emergency funding
for health, sanitation, hospital things. This is another reason why I'm not
sure your reduced agricultural production argument is the central one here.

(for refs on this, see the essays in S.R.Osmani (ed.), _Nutrition and
Poverty_ (Oxford 1993). Robert Fogel's 1994 Nobel Prize acceptance speech
also covers some of this more succinctly - it's mainly about long-term
mortality effects of malnutrition, but does usefully discuss the important
distinction between gross nutrition (diet, calorific intake etc.) and
'nutritional status', around p. 371)

6) "the food distribution system is a shambles." Is it definitely? FAO says
that "all Iraqis continue to receive their monthly food ration from the
Public Distribution System" - they suggest, rather, that food insecurity is
caused more by crisis needs, displacement etc. See point 5: i.e. might the
target not so much be food aid, as insecurity, displacement, bombed-out
infrastructure etc.?


Michael Lewis

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