TCS Daily

A Textbook Case of How Bureaucracy Kills

By Tim Worstall - September 26, 2005 12:00 AM

I tend not to get too angry at whatever stupidities the various weasels, politicians and bureaucrats who rule us get up to, preferring to ignore them and exist in a susurration of "what did you expect?"s and "typical"s. After all, what are they for if it is not to spend our money for us? Think how insufferably rich and content we would be if they were not there to waste it?

Then something like the Niger famine comes along and rage becomes the only appropriate response. You might recall Melana Zyla Vickers writing about it here after that absurd Washington Post article blaming it on free markets. You probably didn't see something I wrote for the Globalization Institute in London:

        The heavyweight economist on the subject of famine is Amartya Sen and his 
        study of the subject was much of what he received his Nobel Prize for. 
        One of his points is that a famine can happen (and many of those that do 
        occur are of this type, like the Wollo one in Ethiopia in 1974) not when there 
        is a shortage of food, but when there is a shortage of money in the hands 
        of those who wish to buy it.

The basic analysis, that of Sen, seems to be true in this case. Food is 
        available - there are people importing it - but there are people starving 
        because they cannot afford it. The solution is to give those people the 
        money to purchase the food. It is known in the trade as "dropping 
        dollars out of helicopters" and while there may be more sophisticated 
        methods of doing it, that is, in essence, what it is.

It is possible that you missed this report from the BBC giving the views of William Easterly:

        One problem with dramatic appeals, Mr Easterly notes, is that they do 
        not give you a big bang for your aid buck.

        "The payoff is disappointingly low," he says. Getting the relief effort up 
        and running takes time, and when the food arrives it is often too late - or 
        the crisis has eased on its own, as appears to be the case in Niger.

The West tends not only to overstate the effectiveness of aid, but also 
        to underestimate its harmful effects.

        A bonanza often undermines self-reliance.

        "It is axiomatic that flooding the market with food drives down the price 
        for local farmers," Mr Easterly says.

        James Shikwati, who heads the Inter Region Economic Network, a Kenyan NGO, 
        says drought aid to his country in the 1990s "killed production" in many areas 
        and increased dependency.

I am almost certain that you will not have seen this blog post from (disclosure, we have mutual friends but do not actually know each other) one who actually hands out aid on behalf of the European Union:

        I am fed up to the back teeth with this whingeing about donors not reacting 
        on the Niger famine. The EU have been actively looking for aid partners 
        to spend 4.6 million € since April. The reason why people are starving in Niger now, 
        in August, is because some of those who asked for it to be made available 
        for their feeding projects didn't get their proposals for actual projects 
        in before early July. I also know for a fact that one of the organisations 
        has a massive "emergency reserve" lying in wait for the famine almost 
        certainly about to happen in a certain southern African country, a reserve 
        that could have easily been tapped and replenished. They did not need to 
        wait for donor funds to react.

But your not knowing these things is fine, you're not an expert, one of the justifications for a bureaucracy is that they are such and we can trust them to act competently when called upon to do so. So the World Food Program, that part of the United Nations that deals with such things is right on the case, yes? They have acted promptly? They have correctly identified the problem as a lack of purchasing power, not a lack of food? They have shipped in money so as to encourage local production in the future rather than dumping food? They have, in short, done us proud alleviated starvation as fast as possible and with the least possible future side effects?

No. Unfortunately not. They appear to have done exactly the opposite of all of those things. In the New York Times today Natasha C. Burley tells us that:

        But now, after a season of good rains, Niger's farmers are producing 
        a bumper crop of millet, the national staple. This should be a cause for 
        rejoicing, yet in one of the twists that mark life in the world's poorest 
        countries, the aid that was intended to save lives could ruin the harvest 
        for many of Niger's farmers by driving down prices.

        The newly harvested millet and the donated food will reach market 
        stalls at the same time, and with prices depressed, poor farming families 
        may be forced to sell crops normally set aside for their own use and use 
        the money to pay off debts. The effect would be a new cycle of hunger 
        and poverty.

So the food aid that shouldn't have been sent in the first place has arrived after the next harvest so all it will do is destroy the livelihoods of a few more farmers and make the problems worse in the future.

Is there anyone left who thinks the United Nations does not need reform? I don't mind them not listening to what I said on a website in London but couldn't they, when dealing with a famine, at least listen to the man who won the Nobel for his, umm, study of famines?

        Tensions are rising among donors as various officials and organizations 
        have called for distributions to cease, for fear of depressing prices for 
        local farmers. Thirty thousand tons of food, to be trucked up from 
        neighboring Benin and from Togo, has yet to reach Niger, but Gian Carlo Cirri, 
        the World Food Program representative in Niger, insisted that all distribution 
        could be done by Oct. 15.

So some are listening but not the international bureaucrat running the system.

        Most international aid organizations have been resisting the World Food Program's 
        decision to continue distributions until mid-October because of the impact 
        on local markets.

Even most of them but not the main one. Rage is, I hope you'll agree, the appropriate response?

I think I've made it fairly obvious in my little pieces here that I don't much like the idea of an International Bureaucracy, am not taken with the UN itself nor with most of those who end up in gummint work. But if we are going to have them could we at least have them up to speed on the real world? And get them to stop doing things that make the problems they address worse? Is that too much to hope for? Or am I doomed to a life of high dudgeon?

Tim Worstall is a TCS contributing writer living in Europe. His upcoming book of the best of British blogging can be pre-ordered from Find more of his musings here.


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