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More symbol than sustenance

The food parcels dropped on Afghanistan are for Western consumption.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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As the US started bombing Afghanistan, President Bush announced that 37,500 food parcels would also be dropped – so that ‘the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies’. To make sure Afghans get the message, the packages bear the words, ‘Food gift from the people of the United States of America’ (1).

But why did the USA discover a concern for the Afghan poor, just as it began to attack their country?

Some commentators took the dropping of food parcels at face value, and criticised the operation for failing to solve the problem of hunger among Afghans. But debating the specifics of pack-dropping misses the fact that the USA is not really dropping food to feed the starving. Rather, it is dropping symbols in an attempt to show that, just as the bombs begin to fly, it still really cares about the people of Afghanistan.

Aid agencies have rightly pointed out that many of the randomly dropped packages would have got lost, many would be destroyed on impact, and many eaten by people who were not starving. Some could have even injured or killed hungry people by falling on top of them.

Others have raised more specific objections about the contents of the packs: complaining that they only contained food for adults, while many of the starving are children – or that they contained medicines, but provided no way to diagnose illnesses.

Peter Popham wrote in the UK Independent that, because many of the packages are being dropped in minefields, ‘hungry and desperate Afghans could get themselves blown up attempting to retrieve dropped food packets’ (2). In the UK Telegraph, Alice Thomson argues that the packages are not enough to alleviate Afghans’ problems: ‘[People also] need water – impossible to drop from the air. They require oral rehydration tablets for cholera; tents to keep out the snow.’ (3)

But you only have to look at the content of the packs to realise their aim is not to alleviate hunger. As Popham’s article notes, each package contains: beans and lentils in tomato sauce, peanut butter, strawberry jam, fruit bar, beans and tomato vinaigrette, biscuit, shortbread and fruit pastry. It also, apparently, contains salt, pepper, and a napkin! These are vegetarian aeroplane meals, not life-saving rations. US officials admit the drops are as important for their ‘psychological value’ as their nutritional effect.

One British aid worker said, ‘They might as well just drop leaflets’ (4). In actual fact, this is pretty much what they are doing. US representatives have openly stated that the aim of food drops is primarily ‘symbolic’.

This symbolic message is less for ‘the oppressed people of Afghanistan’ to whom Bush referred – who, if they ever get them, are likely to be nothing but confused by the yellow-packaged mini-meals falling out of the sky – than for the public back home in the West. Western leaders are obviously having problems justifying their bombs – and food packages are that much more palatable.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

spiked-issues: Attack on USA

(1) Dropping aid is no use – give money to the Afghans, 9 October 2001

(2) Alarm over aid drop in ‘world’s biggest minefield’, 9 October 2001

(3) Dropping aid is no use – give money to the Afghans, 9 October 2001

(4) Financial Times, 10 October 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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