Food Relief Supplies Bartered out of Need, Not Excess

Article excerpt

When refugees sell or barter food, it's not always an indication that they've been given too much food relief, as donors assume, but because they are desperate to obtain different food, such as salt, necessary for survival.

In fact, in a new Cornell University study researchers found that the poorest refugees who had the worst diets were twice as likely to sell or barter food as other families.

"Donors tend to interpret food sales by refugees as evidence that the refugees are getting too much, so donors then typically cut back on food relief," says Jean-Pierre Habicht, M.D., a world-renowned expert in international nutrition surveillance and co-director of the Program in International Nutrition at Cornell. Such was the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in 1996, when the World Food Programme reduced food rations by 20 percent after donors observed that some food aid was being sold in local markets and exported.

"Our study, which is the first to document the different responses within a population according to levels of deprivation, shows that food sales by refugees are not evidence they are getting too much. Refugees are provoked to sell food because they need other important foods, are culturally averse to the food they've been given, are unable to prepare it for lack of fuel, or are desperate to obtain nonfood supplies, such as soap."

The findings are important, Habicht says, because they delve into the less-than-obvious motives behind food aid sales and could impact how donors interpret refugee food sales and whether donors will continue to reduce rations when they observe the sale of food rations in refugee populations.

Barbara Reed, a doctoral candidate in nutritional sciences working with Habicht, interviewed a wide range of refugees, camp workers, and farmers in and around refugee camps near Uvira, eastern Congo (Zaire). Reed and Habicht then conducted a survey of 1,005 households, randomly selected across the camps, to quantify the nature and prevalence of buying, selling, and eating patterns. …