Reforming food aid with philosophical tools

With special thanks to John O’Neill at The University of Manchester for answering all questions and uploading his article ‘Food, needs and commons’, which can be accessed through his list of publications here: (Accessed: 10 May 2018).

“Famine itself is the result of human actions: There is nothing ‘natural’ about it,” Sylvie Brunel concludes in Geopolitics of Hunger, a publication by the humanitarian organisation Action Against Hunger (2001: 154). Nearly two decades ago, she stated something that many politicians today still refuse to admit. John O’Neill’s article Food, needs and commons approaches the problem of food accessibility from a highly relevant, state-of-the-art perspective: it addresses the controversy around organising food distribution through the market and, thereby, making the escape from hunger and starvation a matter of a means of exchange.

A key strength of the piece is its interdisciplinarity, visible in the first part, which analyses how food is to be understood in academic, but also in policy-centred debate. Interestingly, the starting point is food as a need – rather than a commodity – which is a perspective that sticks with the reader. Dominant accounts of distributive justice focus on evening out inequalities and vulnerabilities – they look at the number of things there is and try to find the fairest allocation of them (an overview can be accessed here through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Talking about the underlying needs seems like taking a step back; even though Marxian theory is only mentioned towards the end of the article (O’Neill 2018: 20; Section 5), it is possible to get a pretty clear idea of what it means to remove vulnerabilities before they can be exploited, or, more generally, before the market can try to encounter them with commodification.

After decades of providing development assistance and food aid to various regions around the world, the West is struggling to agree on what the right strategies are to achieve common goals. The surrounding debates are not only pragmatic-economical; often, we are required to make value-judgements and take a position for one or the other theory of justice. Sometimes the actual intention of an aid programme is hard to reconstruct. An example is food aid given to Russia, amongst other countries; the special circumstances of the granted aid indicates that Western countries had an interest in raising food prices in their local market, making food donations an easy option to reduce national supply without interference in production and employment (Giroux 2001: 275). These conflicting motivations only exist because of the commodification of food by the market. Thinking of food as a need, and, moreover, as a normative public good (O’Neill 2018: 4) – a good no one should be excluded from – has the potential to remind aid donors of their original, well-justified reasons to grant aid. Usually, this will lead to strategies that refrain from sending groceries around the world – supporting the local agricultural sector, for example (Giroux 2001: 280).

Many references in O’Neill’s article provoke thinking about recent examples from the modern, globalised economy; consequently, the fundamental structure of our food-distributing system is questioned. One example is a rather interesting quote by Adam Smith, referring to free trade being a prevention of famine (O’Neill 2018: 5), which has proven to be untrue plenty of times in a globalised food economy where international trade makes it easy to push local food producers out of the market, facilitating urbanisation and creating international dependencies. Consider, for example, the European Union subsidising tomatoes and exporting them to Africa; the newspaper ZEIT talks about farmers from Ghana who cannot make a living anymore and migrate to Europe, where they often work on those tomato farms whose exports detracted their livelihoods in the first place (Krupa and Lobenstein 2015).

Another impulse is given by Hegel’s account of the contractual relationships the market creates, enabling citizens to recognise each other as free, independent beings. O’Neill contrasts this among other pieces of evidence against, for example, James Scott’s distinction between the moral (subsistence) economy and the rational, beyond-moral capitalist order (2018: 6). The reader is presented with an argument as to why the different types of economic organisation should be seen as guided by different morals, an argument that reforms political debate and rhetoric. On the one hand, it stops supporters of the market economy in all social spheres from presenting themselves as more rational than those who prefer alternatives. On the other hand, it implies that criticisms of the market can and should be directed at it as a moral institution, rather than branding it amoral and refusing to engage in discussions about market justice.

‘Food, needs and commons’ is interesting to read for people coming from various academic fields. It is an excellent starting point for research on the issue of food distribution and introduces a broad range of relevant literature around the topic. This makes the piece analytic while at the same time rethinking the morals around food and who possesses it – it has the potential to leave readers from all political backgrounds considering the notion that “with respect to need, goods are common property” (O’Neill 2018: 8).


Brunel, S. (2001). Are there still “natural” famines?, in Action Against Hunger. The geopolitics of hunger, 2000-2001: Hunger and power. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, pp. 149-155.

Giroux, A. (2001). Is food aid to Russia necessary?, in Action Against Hunger. The geopolitics of hunger, 2000-2001: Hunger and power. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, pp. 275-281.

Krupa, M. and Lobenstein, C. (2015). Ein Mann pflückt gegen Europa – Wie Tomaten aus der EU afrikanische Bauern zu Flüchtlingen machen, Die ZEIT, 30 December [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 10 May 2018).

Lamont, J. and Favor, C. (2017). Distributive Justice, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Available at: (Accessed: 10 May 2018).

O’Neill, J. (2018). Food, needs and commons, in Pol, J. L. V., Ferrando, T., de Schutter, O. and Mattei, U. (eds). Routledge Handbook of Foods as a Commons. London: Routledge.