YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Plumpy bombing

FOOD DIPLOMACY: The 'Candy Bomber' and the case for not-so-random acts of kindness.

June 16, 2008

In 1948, a first lieutenant in the Air Force named Gail Halvorsen began dropping candy bars attached to tiny handkerchief parachutes to the hungry children of Berlin. Many had never tasted chocolate before. The kindness of the "Candy Bomber” came to symbolize the spirit of American humanitarianism. Now the United States gives billions of dollars in humanitarian aid each year, yet the country is widely disliked by the publics of the largest beneficiaries, such as Pakistan and Egypt.

The global food crisis offers the United States a fresh opportunity to show the world its humanitarian mettle. In 2007, with prices soaring, the volume of food donated by rich countries to hungry ones actually shrank 15% to the lowest levels in nearly five decades, according to the United Nations. In 2008, the harvest in the U.S., particularly for corn, is forecast to be one of the worst in years, even as demand skyrockets for corn for biofuels as well as for animal feed in richer countries. Poor harvests will guarantee continued food-price hikes that will erode the purchasing power of the $6 billion that developed countries have recently pledged to the U.N. World Food Program.

So the U.S. will be asked to do more -- and it should. The question is whether it can turn this crisis into an opportunity to remake the agricultural and aid policies that have racked up a 50-year record of expensive failure. Across the developing world, billions of dollars in U.S. food aid have not reduced the underlying poverty and mismanagement that creates chronic malnutrition and all-too-frequent famines. Yet these costly policies are so politically entrenched, so fiercely defended by their domestic constituents, that they appear immutable. And they will be -- unless citizens demand wiser use of their increasingly stretched tax dollars.

The big thinkers in both presidential campaigns should be mapping out more thoughtful responses to the global food challenge. That means crafting plans both to help the hungry and to improve perceptions of the United States in strategic and suffering areas. Why couldn't the U.S. "candy bomb" nutritional packages into such deprived places as the Gaza Strip, the tribal areas of Pakistan or the Shiite slums of south Beirut, where Hezbollah holds sway? Why can't it subvert the influence of the Taliban among the population of South Waziristan -- the region of Pakistan from which the U.S. military expects most new terrorist attacks to emanate -- by burying that hostile land in fertilizer, drought-resistant seeds and food for what is sure to be a difficult winter?

Such heart-and-mind operations will require imaginative thinking and a willingness to discard the traditional measures of success, such as cost-effectiveness, that define most aid programs. After all, the Pentagon "wastes" billions of dollars preparing to fight wars that never break out -- in part because the very act of preparation deters all potential adversaries. Why should we demand that waging peace be more cost-effective than waging war? Why not "waste" a billion or two to build goodwill, accepting that some aid will be stolen or diverted and that compassion cannot be quantified?

Of course, a targeted, food-based public diplomacy campaign must never substitute for or squeeze out humanitarian efforts to mitigate the global hunger crisis. It must be a supplement. And it goes without saying that any candy-bombing campaign must be carefully vetted above all to do no unintended harm to the recipients. (Dropping chocolate bars on starving children would send nutritionists, not to mention the children, into shock.) But if the United States intends to be a superpower of generosity, the next president should tap American ingenuity to design better ways to feed our friends and thus confound our enemies.

Some fodder for thought:

* Ask them what they want. The developing-world landscape is littered with projects that failed because the intended beneficiaries didn't want what was offered or rejected the conditions that were imposed. A gift from the American people should come with no strings attached. And, like any thoughtful gift, it must be carefully chosen to please the recipient. That means we have to stop cleaning out our (agricultural) garage, sending our castoffs abroad and then wondering why those benighted countries aren't properly grateful. Only the truly starving will welcome food that tastes or looks weird (African corn is white, not yellow), or that they would rather feed to their animals (corn in rice-eating cultures), or that they don't know how to cook, or that makes them feel anxious (such as genetically modified food or, in some countries, U.S. beef). If we want to help the hungry and make friends at the same time, we must invest in market research -- and listen to the answers.

Los Angeles Times Articles