Food Aid Effectiveness: It's the Targeting, Stupid!

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In the 1992 United States presidential campaign, Bill Clinton and his staff regularly invoked the forceful reminder It's the economy, stupid! in order to maintain a tight focus on the core issue that would ultimately decide their electoral success or failure. This initially seemed reductionist to many observers, because a presidential campaign is a complex affair, with myriad issues and pressures confronting the candidate every day. But Clinton and his staff were ultimately proved correct. Most of the important issues that could ignite or derail their campaign did boil down to the economy, and their famous, ruthless focus proved highly successful. This paper advances the argument that similar focus on issues of targeting are essential if food aid is to succeed in its core mission to contribute to human development by providing temporary relief of food insecurity among poor peoples in the world. The issue of targeting concerns the who, the when, the what and the how questions surrounding transfers: is aid reaching people who need it (and not flowing to people who do not need it), when they need it, in appropriate form, and through effective modalities? There has been considerable research in recent years on targeting transfers generally, much of it motivated by the search for effective targeting mechanisms that do not require costly administrative screening. Targeting is of special importance in food aid for two basic reasons. First, food is a critical resource. People who go without enough and appropriate food for even a relatively short period of time can suffer irreversible health effects of undernutrition and related diseases and injuries. Therefore, reaching beneficiaries who would otherwise suffer undernutrition, in a timely manner, and in an appropriate form is especially important for the effectiveness of food transfers. And if done right, food transfers can be fundamental to effective development strategy, by safeguarding the most valuable asset of the poor: the human capital embodied in their health and education. Second, the key alleged problems surrounding food aid - displaced international trade, depressed producer prices in recipient countries, labor supply disincentives, delivery delays, misuse by intermediaries, diversion to resale or feeding livestock or alcohol brewing, dependency, inattention to beneficiaries' micronutrient needs, etc. - all revolve ultimately around questions of targeting. If the donor community could improve the targeting of food aid, it could improve the effectiveness of food aid in accomplishing its primary humanitarian and development aim - the maintenance of valuable human capital - and reduce many of the errors that sometimes make food aid controversial, ineffective, or both. A limited amount of descriptive research has explored ex post whether food aid has reached intended beneficiaries, and has found considerable targeting errors of inclusion (providing aid to the non-needy) and exclusion (failure to reach the needy) at both macro and micro levels. There have also been considerable efforts at improving ex ante food aid targeting through the development and refinement of early warning systems, vulnerability mapping, and similar tools, so that aid might reach needy people in a more reliable and timely fashion. This paper offers a brief interpretive review of this evidence. Section I summarizes the empirical evidence on food aid targeting at both macro- and micro- levels, emphasizing the inherent tradeoff between errors of exclusion (missing intended beneficiaries) and errors of inclusion (providing transfers to the non-needy). Section II then discusses the consequences of targeting errors, again looking at both errors of exclusion and inclusion and at micro- as well as macro- levels. Section III reviews some of the options available for improving targeting. Section IV concludes.

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WP 2002-43 December 2002


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Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University



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