Cliff May

It’s become the conventional wisdom and William Tucker, writing in The Weekly Standard, expressed it most eloquently: “Right now, we're trying to run our cars on corn ethanol instead of gasoline. As a result, we suddenly find ourselves taking food out of the mouths of children in developing nations. That may sound harsh, but it also happens to be true.”

Give this a little thought: The suggestion is that American farmers are growing corn primarily to feed children in the Third World. And since people in these nations lack not only food but also money, it assumes that American taxpayers must buy this corn for them and pay to ship it across the ocean to them.

In other words, implicit in this argument is the notion that developing nations are not developing at all, and perhaps never will be. Instead, they must depend on Americans for subsistence. Is this what we believe? Is this the model – the Third World as permanent American ward and welfare recipient -- that we accept and envision for the future?

As a reporter, I witnessed famines up close. I know what nightmares they are. And when a famine occurs, there is nothing to do but get food as quickly as possible into the stomachs of the starving.

But it is a terrible mistake to view famine as the natural state of the “developing” world, to believe that people in such places as Africa must remain forever helpless, incapable of raising enough food even to feed their families. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations.

People often think that relief and development are a single discipline. In fact, they are more like opposites. Development means helping people learn to produce food for themselves and their neighbors. With a little development, a nation can avoid famine, even in years of draught and other natural disasters. Relief is what you provide when development fails.

But the moment you send in free food, you collapse local prices and pauperize those farmers who have managed to raise crops and who want to sell them, make money, improve their farms and increase their production in the future.

In Africa, where I once served as a New York Times bureau chief, people are not poor because they are unwilling to work hard, or because they can’t master agricultural skills, or because the land lacks the potential to produce bounty. They are poor largely because they are oppressed by governments that range from the inept to the tyrannical.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.