Friday, June 11, 2010

Unintended Consequences (of Subsidies and Aid)

There is a very interesting and deceptively intricate story on NPR’s Planet Money about the impact of foreign aid on Haiti’s rice farmers. It seems that well-intentioned aid for those caught in the devastating earthquakes in Haiti, is having a negative effect on the rice farmers of that country who live far outside the damage zone.  Free rice for the victims is depressing the price of Haitian rice.

When we choose to help others, those actions have effects far beyond the immediate. This is because, in any society or economy, actions impact those initially involved. But this changes conditions and changes the resource mix and other choices that have to be made. These are secondary effects. They are costs imposed on others outside the initial action. By my way of thinking, you might want to use this story to illustrate a number of concepts: unintended consequences, secondary effects, externalities, interdependence.

I also found myself wandering down a different mental road. Would the rice farmers be in the same situation if U.S. rice production wasn't subsidized? Wouldn't it be preferable if various aid agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere, bought local rice first to help the quake victims? Wouldn't that minimize the effect on the local market?  Why should subsidized U.S. rice be used if it is negatively impacting the Haitian producers? Evidently, the practice is prompting questions elsewhere.

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