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More Musings on Niger's Famine

Owen offers some sensible musings on the famine in Niger. But, I believe, he misses an important point when he says:

But using aid funds to buy food locally, which is what Café Hayek criticizes, is exactly what the donor should be doing, as it supports local food producers and increases production.

What’s important is that people have food to eat, not that they or their countrymen produce the food that they eat.

This "report" in the Washington Post says that farmers in Niger are now withholding their produce from the market in hopes of selling it to the U.N. and other "aid" agencies at prices higher than Nigeriens can pay. (I don’t know if this piece of the "report" is accurate – much of the rest of the report is nonsense – but I take this particular reported fact as true.) Under these circumstances, it’s possible – possible – that these western "aid" agencies, flush with taxpayer money and having no profit motive to entice them seriously to seek to pay the lowest possible price for the food products that they will then distribute to starving Nigeriens, will pay prices so high that local farmers withhold much of their inventory from the market until the "aid" agencies arrive.

If this is what happens – and it seems from the Washington Post‘s "report" that this is precisely what’s happening – then people go hungry in the meantime. And this going-hungry-in-the-meantime is no consequence of a freer market in Niger (as was implied in the Post‘s "report"; it’s a consequence of "aid" agencies’ intervention.

Even if Owen is right that in the long run these higher prices paid to farmers will stimulate more agricultural production, the fact remains that in the here and now people starve while local farmers await the free-spending "aid" agencies to buy their produce.

But unless the U.N. and other "aid" agencies plan to continue indefinitely to buy Nigerien agricultural output, why presume that "aid" agency purchases of such output today will permanently stimulate the agricultural sector to produce greater output?

Moreover, even if some "aid"-agency policy (or government policy) artificially stimulates Nigerien agricultural output to higher levels, this consequence does not necessarily mean that Nigeriens will have more to eat. Suppose that many Nigeriens have a comparative advantage at producing, say, crafts for export to countries that have a comparative advantage at producing food for export to Niger. If so, then these Nigeriens are better off producing more crafts, exporting them in exchange for imports of food, and eating this imported food. The fact that this food isn’t grown in Niger is irrelevant. What matters is having enough food to eat. The nationalities of those who supply the food is of no importance.

I don’t know what are Nigeriens current comparative advantages. Many, no doubt, have a comparative advantage in the agricultural sector. But surely not all do – and any policy that artificially stimulates agricultural output will, in the long-run, do Nigeriens no good.