Tuesday, August 16, 2005

What rations food? Prices or government? 

Many people know the Sam Kinnison bit about food not growing in a desert, but I recall a related bit where he pretends to be filming starving children in Africa. Posing the kid for a picture sure to help Sally Struthers haul in bucketloads of cash, he shouts at his producer, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING? DON'T GIVE HIM A SANDWICH!!! I NEED THIS PICTURE FIRST!!!" (This is the PG version.)

I'm reminded of this reading this article about the plight of Niger. (h/t: Don Boudreaux)
To the aid workers charged with saving the dying, the immediate challenge is to raise relief money and get supplies to the stricken areas. They leave it to the economists and politicians to come up with a lasting remedy. One such economist is James Shikwati. He blames foreign aid.

"When aid money keeps coming, all our policy-makers do is strategize on how to get more," said the Kenya-based director of the Inter Region Economic Network, an African think tank."They forget about getting their own people working to solve these very basic problems. In Africa, we look to outsiders to solve our problems, making the victim not take responsibility to change."

The logic I used on the air this weekend to say "we'll never run out of oil" also applies to food. We don't run out. We have shortages because we don't want to accept the market as a rationing device. Tim Harford suggests that Niger needs more market orientation and doesn't have it. Harford lets them off too easily in my view.

Famine makes for great pictures, and tugs at the heart and pursestrings. Politicians know this and use food as a weapon against their own people and as a lever for foreign aid. While not a scholarly study, P.J. O'Rourke's All The Trouble in the World is a good start to a set of case studies. If you insist on being more serious, read Robert Conquest.

Bob Subrick notes a pattern here, in Mali and Zimbabwe.