The GiveWell Blog

Direct food aid?

Both the Disease Control Priorities report (DCP) and Copenhagen Consensus (CC) acknowledge malnutrition as an extremely widespread and damaging problem, and both discuss a variety of interventions including breastfeeding promotion, vitamin supplementation, and fortification.

Yet both give hardly any space to the idea of direct food aid, i.e., providing healthy food (or the money necessary to purchase it) directly to people in poverty. CC states that such interventions are “cost-effective but more costly [than other interventions],” and that “because of the emphasis on costs and cost-effectiveness levels we focus on [other interventions such as supplementation] only” (Pg 6). DCP’s chapter on malnutrition (551-565) mentions direct aid only in one paragraph, in the context of comprehensive child nutrition programs, and states that “No consensus exists on when or how to include supplemental food to reduce undernutrition, and inefficient targeting is frequently a key constraint to effectiveness” (556).

Direct food aid seems to me to deserve much more attention, specifically because it is a potential solution to several of the most difficult types of malnutrition to address:

  • Iron deficiency, which can cause anemia and impair cognitive development (DCP 553-4), is extremely difficult to address through supplementation or fortification because of how frequently iron needs to be ingested (DCP 558). Might frequent consumption of meat be an easier sell than frequent consumption of supplements?
  • Protein-energy malnutrition can result in emaciation and stunted height (30-50% of under-5 children sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia suffer from these problems – see DCP Pg 552). As this condition results from insufficient calorie consumption, it does not appear to be treatable through vitamin supplements. Breastfeeding may ensure adequate calories for infants, but what about afterward?
  • There is also always the possibility that our understanding of nutrition isn’t sufficient to name all of the necessary nutrients, and that the best way to give someone a diet that works as well as ours is to give them similar food (rather than simply identifying what seem to be the essential nutrients and providing those).

Direct food aid programs have come under fire due to the practice of obtaining the food from the developed world, which may cause economic distortion and problems for developing-world farmers. But this problem doesn’t seem inherent to direct food aid, only to programs that insist on using developed-world surplus food; a program that bought what it could from nearby farmers, and provided the rest from overseas, would not obviously cause more distortion than other aid programs.

Direct food aid programs may be costly and complex, but they may also be the only way to ensure truly adequate nutrition in some parts of the world. Why aren’t they getting more attention from otherwise thorough analyses?


  • I am not certain, but it is possible that big organizations that source food from developed countries (e.g. WFP) push out other, local initiatives because they are able to pay higher salaries. (If one is unemployed be it in a developing or a developed country you are probably more likely to want to work for a large organization that can pay you very well compared to what a local organization could.)

    Similarly, if a government has accepted grants and loans from institutions like the World Bank and the IMF they are often not allowed to subsidize food. If the local food is too expensive, those who cannot afford it either don’t buy food at all or buy cheaper, imported food – which won’t be meat/fish but rather less nutritious things that travel well and don’t require refrigeration. Local food instead gets sold for export (in those cases and areas where farmers actually produce surpluses).

    Lastly, if an organization is sourcing local food for the poorest segments of the population, the prices will increase for those who may be poor, but not poor enough to qualify for food aid. This creates untenable situations.

    I personally believe in food distribution in emergencies (natural disasters, refugee crises etc.) but have not been very impressed with what I have seen in development contexts – mainly due to the international politics of food aid.

  • I know someone interested in giving, but is set on the cause of direct food aid. Of direct food aid initiatives, is there one that seems most likely to be effective? (a highly uncertain answer would still be helpful in this case)

  • Alexander on September 23, 2013 at 4:05 pm said:

    Ted: unfortunately, we don’t have a recommendation on this front. Sorry not to be more helpful.

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