December 16, 2008

Recipe for Famine


Dec. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The bag of green peas, stamped "USAID From the American People," took more than six months to reach Haylar Ayako.

For seven of his grandchildren, that was a lifetime.

They died as the peas journeyed from North Dakota to southern Ethiopia. During that time, the American growers, processors and transporters that profit from aid shipments were fighting off a proposal before Congress to speed deliveries by buying more from foreign producers near trouble spots. As a result of legal mandates to buy U.S. goods, the world's most generous food relief program wasn't fast or flexible enough to feed the starving in Ethiopia's drought-ridden South Omo region this year.

"I am so grieved that I lost those children," said Ayako, a Bena tribesman, speaking in his local Omotic language. "They died of the food shortage."

The dry peas Ayako took home almost eight weeks ago had traveled more than 12,000 miles (19,300 kilometers) by rail, ship and truck, starting 15 miles south of the Canadian border with their harvest in August 2007. Stops included Lake Charles, Louisiana; Djibouti, the small African country whose capital on the Gulf of Aden serves as a port for food aid; and Nazareth, Ethiopia, two hours south of Addis Ababa, the capital. Warehouse stays punctuated each leg until the peas finally arrived in the village of Shala-Luka.

'Behind Closed Doors'

U.S. farm and shipping lobbyists have stifled efforts to simplify aid deliveries, leaving Africans to starve when they might have been saved, said Andrew Natsios, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who led USAID, the Agency for International Development, from 2001 to 2006.

"No one can take the high moral ground against it, so they hide behind closed doors and kill it," he said. "It's all done behind the scenes."

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