Contents - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

Food and nutrition policy

Food aid policies and programmes: a survey of studies of food aid
Operational conflicts of food aid at the recipient level: those who know don't plan and those who plan don't know
Inter-disciplinary dialogue on world hunger: a summary of the workshop on goals, processes, and indicators of food and nutrition policy
Statement and recommendations of the joint who/unicef meeting on infant and young child feeding

Food aid policies and programmes: a survey of studies of food aid

Food aid, criticized in earlier days as a potentially harmful means of surplus disposal, has come to be regarded more and more as a positive tool of development assistance. A study carried out by Professor Hans W. Singer of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, in consultation with the staff of the World Food Programme (WFP), appears in document WFP/CFA: 5/5-C, March 1978. The following is a chapter-by-chapter summary.

General Considerations

  1. The approach adopted in this survey has of necessity been selective, since the literature on food aid is vast and wide-ranging. In line with the Committee's directives, the survey is concentrated on certain key issues, the clarification of which can help to make food aid a more effective instrument of development assistance. Accordingly, in the following three chapters of the report, an attempt has been made to review critically studies dealing with the impact of food aid on local food production and on government policies and its role in support of labour-intensive works and nutritional improvement. It is hoped that the lessons gleaned from such a review can be useful to the Committee on Food Aid Policies and Programmes and to member governments in evolving policy guidelines that will gear food aid more closely to nutrition, production, employment, and other development objectives, in line with the recommendation of the World Food Council at its Third Session in June 1977.*
  2. It has not been an easy task to draw general policy conclusions from the literature surveyed. For one thing, there were considerable methodological differences in approach on the part of the writers on the subject, and both an explanation of the different points of view and a choice between them is often difficult without an analysis of the theories underlying them - which would have rendered the study unduly long and complex. Moreover, in a more general perspective, there have been changes in thinking on food aid in line with new views on development itself. Analyses have become more dynamic and pay closer attention to institutional factors. More stress is now laid on income distribution, employment, and the satisfaction of basic needs. This has meant that, in general, attitudes toward food aid have evolved in a more favourable direction than, say, in the 1950s or 1960s, especially among writers specializing in the subject, as opposed to those dealing more broadly with development issues. Lastly, there has been a growing stress on the dangers of urban bias in development, as opposed to the alleged disincentive effect of food aid on food production in the recipient countries. Emphasis on the role of agriculture has been growing, and it is now regarded as vital to assess whether the main benefits go to the consumers in the towns or to the rural areas. This new preoccupation has not yet fully worked itself through in the literature and should perhaps be borne in mind as a new factor, despite the great stress laid on it in the present paper.
  3. Development thinking partly reflects, and partly interacts with, changes in the objective situation. Apart from the wide geographical range and variety in the types of food aid provided, conditions have changed considerably between the time when food aid started, in the 1950s, and the present day. Many recipient countries have acquired greater skill and experience in handling food aid and indeed have made great progress both economically and administratively in general terms. But perhaps more important is the change from a situation of permanent donor surplus to one in which a considerable proportion of the cereal imports of the poorer developing countries represents a structural deficit that cannot be financed in commercial terms, at least until their local food production has been helped to expand.
  4. Finally, it should be noted that the emphasis in the literature surveyed has been more on quantifiable economic problems than on those of administration and managerial implementation, however important these may be. The report is focused largely on the impact of food aid on the recipient countries, and deals only marginally, if at all, with food aid policies in donor countries or organizations, or the extent and nature of leverage by them.


  1. Despite the complex considerations described above, certain fairly clear conclusions emerge. First of all, theoretical analysis gives no proof that aid, if properly handled, has serious disincentive effects on food production in recipient countries. Where a case has been made for such short-term effects, these have been far outweighed by the general advantages accruing to the economy if the opportunities offered by food aid for expanding overall consumption and investment are properly utilized.
  2. Case studies of specific countries generally support this conclusion. To be sure, the empirical literature is heavily concentrated on the Indian experience and should therefore be regarded as providing tentative general conclusions, in view of the size and special circumstances of that country. However, studies of other countries at different stages of development (e.g., Greece, Israel, Pakistan, Turkey) on the whole point in the same direction.
  3. In particular, case studies show that the recipient countries have used, with varying degrees of success, a number of policy instruments for absorbing significant quantities of food aid in the context of accelerated development. The chief ones are: (a) the matching of food aid with other resources to finance an expanded scope of development (including domestic food production); (b) the utilization of government revenue (or savings) obtained from food aid for investment or for subsidies tending to reduce unit costs in agriculture, so as to offset short-term downward pressures on prices; or directly for incentive payments to farmers on a general or selective basis; (c) the building up of grain stocks for security and price stabilization purposes; and (d) the distribution of food aid through differentiated (non-commercial) channels.
  4. Food aid should aim not only at stimulating development, but also at promoting a pattern of development geared to the satisfaction of basic needs, vulnerable groups, employment, labour-intensive technology, and more equal income distribution. These aims can be more effectively achieved by the use of counterpart funds from food sales for these purposes- especially in agriculture, the allocation of food aid to specific types of projects (see paragraphs 17 to 25 below) and by sales through differentiated channels.
  5. The study concludes that distribution through differentiated channels is particularly desirable because of its effectiveness in reducing downward pressures on food prices and because it can be used to reach specific target groups: the poor, the unemployed, the undernourished.
  6. Differentiated distribution can be done on a relatively large scale through sales at subsidized prices in "fair price shops" or through special rationing systems. On a usually smaller scale, it takes the form of distribution in kind to beneficiaries through supplementary feeding programmes and food-for-work schemes - the so-called project approach. However, special distribution channels such as "fair price shops" could also be used with advantage in the case of development projects, particularly the larger, multi-purpose schemes, where distribution in kind may not be feasible because of administrative difficulties and high internal transport costs. Such a policy would have the further advantage of reducing the risk of food aid acting as a fiscal drug (i.e., inducing governments to ask for excessive quantities of food aid, merely in order to obtain larger revenue from sales).
  7. The risk of disincentives does not seem to exist where the food aid is given in the form of agricultural inputs, as for example feed grains, milk powder for the development of local processing, blending, or dairy industries. This also suggests the value of combining food aid with the provision of other agricultural inputs, e.g., fertilizer and seeds, as well as the use of revenue derived from food aid for lowering unit costs of agriculture by providing needed inputs.
  8. A good deal of what appears as criticism of food aid for its alleged disincentive effect, on either local producers or government policies, applies equally to financial aid and to commercial imports. The context of food aid makes such disincentive effects on the whole less rather than more likely.

Impact of Food Aid on Government Policies

  1. There is no clear-cut distinction between the direct impact of food aid on prices and the indirect one on policies (including price policy). Food aid is often submerged by other more potent forces shaping government policy. Food aid, too, because of fungibility (i.e., the possible transfer of food aid benefits to other sectors), blurs the issue.
  2. The evidence so far produced is inconclusive and largely influenced by the country concerned or the point in time selected by the analyst.
  3. Critics of food aid tend to conclude that its impact on government policy is negative, that it promotes indifference to local agriculture (or at least food production) and urban bias. The actual effect depends essentially on the stage of development of the government, on its commitment to development, and its sensitiveness to pressures strengthening its agriculture. Critics of food aid have usually taken it for granted that, in the absence of such aid, governments would respond to the increased pressure for local food supplies by offering greater incentive to local farmers. However, they might equally well "squeeze" the farmers by adopting such measures as compulsory food purchases by the state and by banning commercial sales.
  4. Some critics have also pointed out that food aid usually arrives at the main port; differentiated distribution is easier to organize in the urban areas. Even projects such as the feeding of vulnerable groups are easier to set up in urban areas. In short, food aid creates urban bias. In addition, it may preempt the best storage and milling facilities. But there is now a far greater appreciation of the key role of agriculture in development, and hence of the likelihood both of pressures to improve the situation on both counts (urban bias and pre-empting of facilities) and of the governments responding to such pressures.


  1. Writers note a general tendency among those employed in food-for-work projects to prefer cash to food, partly because of the "charity" connotation sometimes associated with such schemes. However, most anatysts agree that food aid through works can both promote development by providing additional income and employment, especially in the rural areas and among the poorer sections of the population, and increase food consumption in families through "leakages" from the workers. The inflationary effects of food-for-work projects are less than those of "straight" public works paying all wages in cash, since most of the additional food demand generated can be satisfied from commodity aid. As with public works in general, food-for-work projects will have greater chances of success and of avoiding inflation if they can use idle productive resources and draw on capital - domestic or foreign- to meet the nonfood expenses in the execution of the works.
  2. The use of food for labour-intensive works does not necessarily require direct payments in kind. There should be increased scope for the sale of food to raise revenue for the financing of such works.
  3. Labour-intensive works supported by food aid should lay more weight on directly productive activities, such as land improvement, irrigation, drainage, and reforestation. However, roads serve a useful purpose in giving rural areas access to towns and hence to markets and to new approaches to production. There should also be greater scope for maintenance activities, if only to ensure that the schemes launched with the help of food aid can be carried on efficiently after the cessation of aid. Poor maintenance limits the productive value of labour-intensive works, and it is easier to organize maintenance projects than new (construction) ones. Renewed interest in maintenance and rehabilitation activities would enable poorer countries to benefit more fully from food aid allocations, and local communities might be involved to a greater extent.
  4. All measures should be taken to improve the productivity of labour-intensive works, though account should be taken of the inclusion of old and disabled people in the ranks of beneficiaries (in other words, of the assistance element). Complementary resources should be made available for reasonable equipment and tools (which tend to be skimped), and the experience thereby gained should be used to build up a labour-intensive technology in line with the needs of developing labour surplus countries, and more particularly the rural areas in the off season. Conversely, small farmers and agricultural workers are not covered by food aid in the seasons when they are faced with major energy-consuming tasks such as harvesting, planting, and weeding. Similarly, cattle may be used at these times for such operations as threshing, and may also be in need of better feeding. (Public works would not be appropriate then, because they would interfere with the labour needs of farmers.) Food aid provided for this purpose would help directly to increase agricultural production.
  5. Writers stress the importance of improving motivation (which is affected by such factors as a prejudice against food-for-work, poor tools, and imperfect communication with the authorities), but disagree as regards the solution, e.g., on the potential role of community development as a framework for such projects.


  1. Supplementary feeding schemes represent additional consumption on the part of vulnerable groups such as infants, expectant and nursing mothers, and schoolchildren. More research is needed on the nutritional effects of such schemes, especially on the last group. The objectives of feeding programmes are usually multiple - being non-nutritional as well as nutritional- and must be judged on all their objectives, especially as there is often a cumulative interaction between the different objectives involved (health, education, and nutrition). This consideration militates in favour of an integrated, or at least closely coordinated, approach in which feeding schemes form one element in a wider programme designed to raise the well-being and health of poorer and more vulnerable groups.
  2. More study is also needed on possible negative aspects of feeding programmes, such as the effects of habituation to new foods beyond the reach of beneficiaries when aid ceases. Such study could help develop useful guidelines in avoiding habituation. A greater effort, too, should be made to link such schemes with the increased consumption and production of local food by means of new and acceptable products.
  3. Close attention should be given to logistic administrative and storage problems, which largely determine the degree of the success of the programmes. Generally speaking, it is advisable to study the impact of an intensive programme of sufficient volume and duration for a small, carefully selected target population (e.g., poorer children, or people in especially poor regions- tribal or otherwise- and other minority groups). The result of a concentrated approach would be more illuminating than a larger, scattered programme.
  4. Since, in the case of the poorest children, attendance at school may not be possible (and hence they would be excluded from the benefit of school food schemes), special measures may be necessary involving community participation. Hence, generally speaking, the most effective supplementary feeding programmes will be those taking place in the context of a basic needs strategy by shifting income to poorer groups- an aim that converges with the general aims of food aid through food-for-work schemes. Special care should be taken to ensure that these schemes benefit rural populations as much as urban ones, since it is easier to set up such programmes for towns.

Contents - Next