Charitable Donation Advice
Charitable Donation Advice is a recurring column here at Change Gangs, because we want our donations to make an impact on the problem. Food aid was a recent education session during a Poverty Busters Giving Circle meeting. Armed with this information we can better direct our donations to programs that will effectively address hunger.
One of our strongest associations with poverty is hunger– to be poor is to not have enough to eat. Consequently, government’s and NGO’s spend billions providing food to help the poor, billions that are unfortunately not well spent, because delivering food is a logistical nightmare rife with waste and corruption. In India, more than half the wheat and one third of rice are lost before it makes it into the bowls of the needy.
In our giving circles, we don’t want our money to be wasted like that, so we’re going to take some time to understand food aid and hunger, so that we can better direct our donations to programs that actually work. We’re currently working our way through Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Poverty, and what here is what we’ve learned so far about food aid.
I’ve already mentioned that delivering food aid is problematic, but more important than the logistics questions though, is whether or not the poor actually need food aid and if so, what kind of food?
It is true that the human body needs a certain number of calories in order to function and once the basic needs of the body are taken care of, the extra food calories go to provide extra energy and build strength. A body without sufficient calories struggles with having the energy to work, with depression, fatigue, etc. A person in that situation will find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty because they must spend all their time and energy acquiring food and will have no time or energy left over to do anything else productive. Food aid is designed to fix this problem.
While a noble idea, this situation does not represent how hunger is experienced by most poor people throughout the developing world. The authors of Poor Economics point out that if this situation were true, then the poor would be maximizing the amount of calories they consume. In study after study, they show that this is not the case. When given the opportunity, the poor will choose to purchase more expensive and better tasting food rather than purchasing more quantity of food. For example, in two regions in China, randomly selected poor households received a significant subsidy on a household staple. These households did not respond by buying more of that staple. Instead, they purchased more meat and shrimp. Overall, they consumed less of the staple and their caloric consumption actually decreased!
The authors conclude, “it seems that most people, even most very poor people, earn enough money to be able to afford an adequate diet, simply because calories tend to be quite cheap, except in extreme situations.”
Based on this so far, we could conclude that food aid is a waste! But it’s a little more complicated than that. It turns out that it’s not an issue of quantity. It’s an issue of QUALITY!
Adequate nutrition is an important indicator in many poverty statistics. Children with better nutrition attend school longer, learn more at school, have higher IQ’s, and earn more as adults.
The authors set out to tackle the question of how to best enable the poor to get the nutrition they need. One challenge is that the role of micro-nutrients is not well understood by the poor in developing countries. Iodized salt consumed during pregnancy leads to healthier babies and iron supplements help men work longer and earn more money, but not only are they not immediately obvious benefits, often taking years to be noticed, outsiders coming in with advice about what and how to eat can be viewed with suspicion and resentment. Another challenge is that the poor sometimes prioritize other things over food. Entertainment, fulfilling cultural customs like weddings and funerals, alcohol, and tobacco can take priority over food purchases. And if this seems unbelievable to you, it might help to reflect that many poor feel trapped by their circumstances and skeptical of the idea that a better life is possible, so why not focus on the here and now and making life a little more comfortable?
So far, we’ve learned that providing food staples, discounting food staples, or providing money for food does not encourage better eating and does not help break the cycle of poverty.
What do we do? Focus on getting the right nutrition to those who do not make their own food choices and will have the most time to benefit: fetuses and young children.
A couple programs to consider are those that give away fortified foods to pregnant mothers, treat children for worms at school, provide nutrient rich meals to children at school, or incentivize parents to consume nutritional supplements.
Poverty Busters Giving Circle donated to one of these programs earlier in the year: Deworm the world. We liked that Deworm the World worked with the local community structure to administer the medication through the school systems and they partnered with the national governments to design a program that can maintained through the long-term. Since children are constantly exposed to these parasites, continuous treatment is essential to the success of the deworming program.
Thanks Poverty Busters members for making a big difference in hundreds of children’s lives!