In nuclear-armed Russia, the United States is hoping to forestall
instability. With North Korea, it is struggling to avert renewed
conflict. In Indonesia, it is trying to help stem unrest in the
world's most populous Muslim state.
Washington is pursuing different approaches in each case to avoid
a crisis with major consequences for US political, economic, and
Yet there is a common element in its strategies: huge amounts of
food aid. In the post-cold-war world, grain may have become the
United States' foreign-policy tool of choice. American security
interests - and not the recipients' level of hunger - are becoming
important criteria for dispersal of US food aid, say some experts.
Take the examples cited above. Russia this month is to begin
receiving 1.5 million tons of US wheat, part of a $625 million deal
to ease shortages due to its fiscal crisis and poor harvests. Though
the US denies a link, its massive food donations to famine-hit North
Korea are widely seen as incentives to keep Pyongyang in peace
And US food aid worth $53 million is going to Indonesia, where
poverty-fueled turmoil ignited by last year's economic problems
threatens its nascent transition to democracy.
Yet all this largess and the huge shipments of food the US rushes
to disaster zones are deceiving. While it remains the largest
international food aid donor, the world's richest nation has slashed
its programs since 1992 by some two-thirds, even as chronic hunger
and malnutrition soar in many parts of the globe.
The exception was last year, when aid rose dramatically. But most
of the increase was earmarked for Indonesia, Russia, and North
Furthermore, the hike was made possible by a coincidental
of election-year politics, market economics, and bumper crops.
With many farmers beset by huge surpluses due to historically low
prices and depressed Asian sales, the Clinton administration came to
the rescue with emergency purchases of the excess. Otherwise,
experts say, the US might have found it hard to help Russia, North
Korea, and Indonesia as well as millions of victims of a surge of
"This was a lucky year for us," a US official says. "Surplus
production in the US has masked what would have otherwise been a
serious food crisis."
Where the aid is going
The biggest cuts in US food aid have been to nongovernmental
development efforts that use food to pay workers in third world
nations for building infrastructure like dams and roads.
Of the 8.3 million tons of aid dispersed by Food for Peace
programs in 1986, 7.3 million tons went to such initiatives. Last
year, they received only 2. …