Strings Attached Africa and the Politics of International Food Aid

The Ukrainian government has donated 25,000 tonnes of wheat to Nigeria, simultaneously announcing plans to develop grain hubs for constant supply of grain and food products. To better understand the reasoning behind this decision, one must understand the influence of donor countries’ foreign policy interests on the history and evolution of food aid programmes.

At the end of February, it will have been a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, leaving thousands dead and millions displaced. Given the key role of both countries in today’s interconnected globalized world, the ongoing conflict has left devastating consequences on other countries. Arguably the grimmest of these consequences is the impact of the war on global food security; the increased prices and reduced food availability seen in the past year has put hundreds of millions of people across the world at a much higher risk of famine-like conditions.

With both Russia and Ukraine ranked among the largest global suppliers of wheat and fertilizers, the conflict compounded the food crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and further highlighted the fragility of the global food system. Within Ukraine, the war has led to widespread damage to farmlands, agricultural infrastructure, and equipment, resulting in many households depending on assistance for food supplies.

Paradoxically, in November last year, Ukraine began its Grains from Ukraine initiative, through which it aims to ‘donate large quantities of wheat to several African countries in desperate need of food’. Under this initiative, the Ukrainian government recently donated 25,000 tonnes of wheat to Nigeria, simultaneously announcing plans to develop grain hubs in Nigeria and Senegal for constant supply of grain and food products.

To better understand the reasoning behind this decision, which has been shrewdly framed as a humanitarian effort, one must understand the influence of donor countries’ foreign policy interests on the history and evolution of food aid programmes.


While there are accounts of food products being donated from one country/nation to another in response to several crises dating back centuries, institutionalized food aid programmes only began as recently as the 1950s. After World War II, as a result of widespread food crises during the war, large grain-producing countries—United States, Australia and Canada— decided to produce and store additional stocks of key grains such as wheat and corn. As a result of high of cost of storing these grains and market distortions due to a supply surplus in the years that followed, these countries provided food supplies at a discounted rate to war-torn European countries (such as France and Britain) and some Asian countries (such as South Korea, Pakistan, and India). In emergency cases where the recipient country was unable to pay, these food supplies were given ‘for free’, like South Korea, a strategic US ally, during the Korean War.

In the 1960s, United States leveraged food aid as a tool to advance its foreign policy interest and gain allies during the Cold War; food aid from the United States was directed towards Vietnam, South Korea, Philippines and Taiwan. In addition to political incentives, long-term economic ones were at play, with all these countries currently among the largest export destinations for United States’ grains. In similar fashion, Canada’s Colombo Plan focused its food aid on Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Hence, from its inception, institutionalized food aid has been highly politicized, with the needs of the recipient countries scarcely the primary motivation behind food donations.

While the establishment of multilateral organizations such as the World Food Programme (WFP) brought about several food aid reforms which aimed to focus on recipient countries and reach those who are most in need, food aid regimes remain highly political. For example, food aid from the United States, which remains the largest food aid donor to Africa and contributor to the WFP and some other countries, have remained This practice has been the subject of debates for several decades, with various experts showing that ‘untied’ food aid—providing cash to recipient countries to buy food locally or regionally—is typically much cheaper and quicker. Despite this, and other well documented negative effects of food aid on domestic production and local markets in recipient countries, that the conventional model of food aid persists suggest that it remains driven by donor interests.


‘Our task is to work with African countries because at the UN, every vote counts’ – Maksym Subkh, Ukraine’s Special Representative for the Middle East and Africa

Historically, African countries have been treated as theatres where foreign geostrategic interests and power struggles play out, and development assistance often serves as a key prop in the play that is the continued scramble for Africa. This remains the case whether it is in form of food aid; as is being courted by Ukraine via its Grains from Ukraine initiative, or in form of militarization and debt forgiveness as favoured by Russia.

In April 2022, when a motion was moved at the UN to suspend Russia from its human rights council, several African countries, including Nigeria, abstained from voting. In October 2022, a meeting of the UN General Assembly saw member states being urged not to recognize the four Ukrainian regions claimed by Russia, and while an overwhelming majority of countries voted in favour, many African countries remained neutral. At the very least, these votes are an indication of the state of Ukraine’s, and accordingly, Russia’s diplomatic relations in Africa.

While the Russian camp places the blame for the global food crisis in Africa on the West and vice versa, if the heinous vaccine hoarding seen in Western countries during the Covid-19 pandemic is anything to go by, after all is said and done, the only party that can be expected to look out for

The current food crisis in Nigeria is dire; the country ranked 103 out of 121 countries in the 2022 Global Hunger Index. Food availability and supply was severely affected by last year’s floods which affected 33 of Nigeria’s 36 states, displaced 1.4 million people, destroyed properties and halted the supply chain.  As a result, many people need food assistance in the short term and are surely indifferent to the sources or political motivations behind such assistance.

Beneath the mask of humanitarian ambitions, the political opportunities for Ukraine’s increasing interest in Africa are clear. Although it remains to be seen what the proposed grain hubs will look like, the onus remains on Nigeria, and indeed other African countries, to ensure that any such strategic relationships are aligned with our food needs, local markets and indigenous food production systems

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