The charity organization CARE has announced that after 2009 it will no longer accept U.S.-donated food aid to Africa. The announcement has caused a stir among food aid agencies and spotlighted a festering controversy, especially in recipient countries.

According to CARE and other aid organizations, the U.S. government — provider of half the world’s donated food — should send money to African nations to buy food from local farmers, thereby supporting the development of those countries’ agricultural skills, production and marketing capabilities.

Instead the U.S. government buys surplus corn and other products from big U.S. farmers — agribusinesses — already well off from federal subsidies on top of their sales receipts. This food is shipped overseas at inflated prices in U.S. ships and donated to aid agencies, who sell it abroad to raise funds to pay for their programs. In the process, says CARE, they undercut local producers.

The U.S., accused by critics of subservience to agribusiness interests, has refused to follow the lead of Canada, Australia and European countries in sending needy developing nations cash instead of food. In May 2006, Eritrea stunned the food-donating community by locking its door to donated food stocks. The Eritrean government of Isaias Afewerki indicated that 10 years of dependency and paralysis of the country’s own productive capacities were enough, and cash assistance would be a much preferred alternative.

In Malawi, World Food Program officials estimate that the yearly cost, including overhead expenses, of buying 8,800 tons of U.S. products used in a “corn soybean blend” for food for school children amounts to about $737 per ton. By contrast, the cost of corn bought from Malawi farmers, who had unsold surpluses on their hands last year, would have been $280 per ton. The upshot is that if U.S. monetary aid had been available in place of food, the program could have fed over twice as many children.

An article in the UK Observer May 27 headlined “How America is betraying the hungry children of Africa” quotes Malawian food security analyst Charles Rethman about the U.S. food program: “It’s very short-sighted — it doesn’t make any sense. It’s going to short-circuit the effort to improve nutrition here, it undermines farmers, households. It’s not sustainable and it won’t bring about any long-term change to malnutrition rates.”

A front-page New York Times story Aug. 16 cited former President Jimmy Carter’s opinion that “it was a flawed system that had survived partly because the charities that received money defended it.” He was speaking for the Carter Center, which donates money to African farmers to improve their productive capabilities.

Faith-based charity World Vision and 14 other groups protested CARE’s action, claiming “the system works,” according to the Times.

But other large charity groups, including Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children, and the Government Accountability Office agreed with CARE that the U.S. food donation system is inefficient. However, the Times reported, “they will not stop converting American food into money unless Congress replaces the lost revenues with cash.”

That is an unlikely prospect in view of the money-fueled relationship between well-fed congresspersons and agribusiness power.