H. Wieters: The NGO CARE and food aid from America 1945–80

The NGO CARE and Food Aid from America, 1945–80. 'Showered with Kindness'?

Wieters, Heike
Humanitarianism – Key Debates and New Approaches
Anzahl Seiten
XII, 321 S.
£ 90.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Katharina Stornig, International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture, Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen

In the second half of the twentieth century, CARE packages became true icons of international aid. Invented in 1945 by the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, the first CARE packages delivered food and consumer goods from North America to war-torn Europe. Funded by individual donors and delivered across the Atlantic to individual beneficiaries through CARE’s rapidly developing infrastructure, the packages not only enabled new forms of symbolic connection in Transatlantic food aid relations, but also media-effective strategies of advertising and testifying charitable and humanitarian commitment. When Europe started to recover in the late 1940s and early 1950s, CARE changed its name to Cooperative for American Relief to Everywhere and its packages set out to conquer the world. As Heike Wieters’ rich and carefully researched book shows, the global presence and movements of CARE packages was far from coincidental. On the contrary: it was the product of the highly strategic workings of a professional organization and its peculiar mission that involved not only humanitarian concerns but also entrepreneurial skills and business-like approaches.

In “The NGO CARE and food aid from America”, Heike Wieters reconstructs the organizational history behind the millions of packages moving American food and products around the globe. She explains the successful foundation, consolidation and global expansion of CARE by pointing to its characteristic entrepreneurial professionalism, its devotion to economic management and business practices, its well-functioning network, and, last but not least, the great ambitions that had shaped it from the outset. Using published and unpublished records from CARE as well as from other international organizations active in twentieth-century food aid, like the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (OXFAM) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Wieters not only demonstrates that CARE indeed was meant “to be ‘big from the start’” (p. 17), but also examines the history of how it became one of the largest humanitarian non-governmental organizations world-wide. A particular strength of the study is that Wieters does not analyze the history of CARE from within the organization or the non-profit sector alone. Instead, she examines the development of CARE within the extended spheres of society, commerce, agriculture, finance and politics. By so doing, Wieters shows that CARE was “highly entangled” with other organizations and government agencies “from day one”, convincingly arguing that it was precisely due to ongoing political support that CARE was able to establish itself rapidly and permanently as a major player in international hunger relief and development assistance (pp. 278–279).

Wieters’ book takes the foundation of CARE as its starting point. Created in 1945 by a group of people who were all active in food aid yet coming from diverse organizational backgrounds, CARE was initially created as a temporary agency to provide a clearly defined service: to deliver food packages from private donors in the United States to individual beneficiaries in Europe. Wieters analyzes in detail the challenges faced by a relief agency that, due to the diversity of its individual members and member organizations, enjoyed high visibility from the start, yet simultaneously faced the challenge of establishing an operational organizational structure. By so doing, she shows how CARE, despite ongoing internal disputes and competition, developed from a highly successful service provider into an independent and permanent relief organization with a philosophy and professional culture of its own. In this process of consolidation, CARE developed its characteristic outlook and reshaped its mission: it expanded by taking on paid employees (rather than voluntary workers), hired highly professional staff and cultivated a merit-based, commercially efficient and ambitious business culture. CARE recruited leaders with business education and established a non-profit enterprise that combined the aim of feeding the hungry with economic considerations, measuring success in numbers of sales.

Wieters provides numerous telling examples of how economic practices and considerations shaped and structured CARE’s activities. These included market research among potential donor groups which resulted, for instance, in the invention of special Italian or kosher food packages as the organization expanded in the late 1940s. Market-oriented research also anteceded CARE’s expansion of relief work into Asia in 1948: significantly, it was only after a commissioned report had indicated American donors’ (and the US military’s) support that CARE started its operations in Japan and Korea. Soon a range of other countries (Israel, China, Pakistan, the Philippines and India) followed until CARE again dramatically expanded its activities in the early 1950s by starting food aid programs in Chile, Haiti, Panama, Honduras, Hong Kong, Macao, Egypt and Colombia, which were soon followed up with development programs. While this enormous expansion was driven by humanitarian and ideological (i.e. Cold War) concerns, Wieters argues that it was ultimately facilitated by CARE’s close cooperation with the US government as well as a range of pro-profit and non-profit organizations.

This is clearly shown throughout Wieters’ chapters that are organized largely chronologically and geographically. Taking the reader on a journey of food aid from America to Europe, Korea, Egypt and Colombia, the book encompasses a series of related case studies, which allow the author to discuss key moments in CARE’s national and international development very detailed. It is also through these case studies that Wieters describes the transformation of CARE from a relief agency to a major American player in the consolidating (international) field of development. For CARE that journey involved not only many ups and downs but also various more or less successful attempts at cooperation with other agencies working in the field, such as local NGOs or other international players like OXFAM or FAO. A particularly interesting chapter introduces CARE’s cooperation in Colombia with the newly founded Peace Corps, the volunteer program run by the US government, showing how CARE, despite numerous problems and tensions, managed to use this joint venture in the early 1960s to establish itself in the field of development consulting.

Overall, Wieters’ book draws a clear and, in some respects, very detailed picture about an internationally important aid organization and its complex structure and politics up to 1980, when CARE eventually had transformed into a multinational enterprise. Her study introduces leading figures and gives valuable insight into the development of CARE’s organizational structure (including a range of helpful tables). And yet, given Wieters’ strong focus on CARE as the main historical actor of interest, it remains at times somewhat unclear who or what “CARE” actually is and what “ordinary” employees at the lower end of the pay scale contributed to the organization’s mission, outlook and culture. This is partly due to the fact that leadership perspectives and strategic choices clearly prevail. This is certainly highly informative but it also means that, apart from a few exceptions such as in the case of the Peace Corps volunteers to Colombia, we learn little about the visions, motivations, attitudes and day-to-day routines of the several hundreds of employees that had decided to work for a non-profit organization. They likewise formed a constitutive part of CARE, as did the numerous supporters who financed the whole enterprise in the end. Did they accept or share CARE’s characteristic entrepreneurial spirit or, in some instances, also critique it? One wonders, for instance, whether it caused tensions when CARE suddenly closed all offices in eight countries in Asia and South America out of economic (rather than humanitarian) considerations in 1955 (p. 110). While a broader (or even a bottom up) perspective would allow for another set of highly interesting questions to be posed, this was clearly not the focus of the study. By adopting an organizational history approach, Wieters’ study undoubtedly offers valuable insight not only into the detailed workings of CARE but also into how large humanitarian NGOs functioned in the second half of the twentieth century more generally.