What's humanitarian about this aid?

The US has imposed on Russia an aid package that will leave the country poorer but American farmers

Here we are at the end of 1998. More than ten years has passed since Russia began experimenting with economic and political reform. During those ten years, we have had much experience of this reform and can now state with some certainty that there are at least three things Russia does not need. First, more loans to add to those that already cannot be paid back. Second, more financial resources placed in the hands of corrupt bureaucrats. Third, more economic measures that will harm any of the already fragile Russian domestic manufacturing industries.

What is the west doing to help Russia at the end of 1998? You don't need three guesses to work out that it is engaging in the one form of "aid" activity guaranteed to achieve all three of these negative goals: selling large quantities of cheap food to Russia. This is what is generally called "humanitarian aid". It is a farce.

Which is not to say that there aren't hungry people in Russia, or that hungry people shouldn't be helped. Even in Moscow, the richest city in the country, the metro stations are now tightly encircled by old ladies holding up single packs of cigarettes and bits of dried fish, the sale of which will finance the potato they will eat for supper. Even in Moscow everyone has a story: a cousin in Siberia, perhaps a PhD in physics, who hasn't received his salary for a year, or a friend whose child reports that schoolmates pass out in class through lack of food. The newspapers are full of such stories, too, and, although Russians generally seem to find ways to survive without starving, one doesn't have to look hard to see poverty that is far worse than in recent years.

There are good ways to help people and bad ways. There are also terrible ways, and the west, most notably the United States, appears to have chosen the most terrible way of all. At least the European Union has the decency to give its $500 million worth of surplus subsidised food to Russia for free. The United States, on the other hand, has graciously offered to lend the Russian government money to buy its $600 million worth of surplus subsidised food - thereby adding to the Russian government's vast and unrepayable debts.

More to the point, everything is being done to ensure that the money will not go directly to the people who need it. If the words "humanitarian aid" conjure up a heart-warming image of a little man in a shiny lorry giving out hot cross buns to beggars, forget it. According to the current plan, the aid will be distributed by private companies, which in Russia means fat, sluggish, semi-private companies stuffed with former Agriculture Ministry bureaucrats. Inevitably these companies have close links to the politicians who selected them to carry out said aid distribution.

At least one of these companies, Roskhleboprodukt, has done this sort of thing before: it distributed grain three times in 1991 and 1992. That is, it took the grain, sold the grain, accepted money for the grain and somehow appeared not to notice when large quantities of grain and money disappeared in the process. The president of Roskhleboprodukt has admitted that the last time around, food distribution wasn't entirely above board although, naturally, he denied that his company was involved.

Yet it isn't as if the aid is intended to help the Russian domestic food industry either. When a few semi-private companies sell free food below cost, what happens to Russian food producers in the meantime? Well, first they have trouble competing; then they go out of business. Cheap chicken legs from America mean that producers of Russian pork might as well go home. Ditto cheap wheat, rye, rice, beef, whatever.

Although there are conflicting reports about how good the Russian grain harvest was this past year, the view of the Russian grain market in the future is fairly uniform: the flood of foreign food will create a surplus, and that surplus can only, in the end, hurt domestic producers.

Unless, of course, those domestic producers simply start selling their products abroad, which they almost certainly will. Already Russia has exported 1.5 million tonnes of wheat this year, according to the Institute for Agrarian Market Research here. Hundreds of thousands more tonnes go abroad every month, and nobody has any intention of stopping them. True, Russia has agreed not to re-export American aid, but even if it keeps to this promise, which seems unlikely, Gennady Kulik, the deputy prime minister, whose pet project this is, insisted last week that "no, we are not going to stop exporting". And that is that.

Yes, Kulik is a cynic. But he does deserve some credit: he is not as cynical as the American secretary of agriculture who has openly described the aid deal as "good news for America's farmers and ranchers". He is right: if anyone other than the employees of Roskhleboprodukt stands to gain from this exercise, it is they.

And if anyone loses, it will be the Russians, and not only the hungry Russians. When, once again, a western effort to "help" Russia collapses into chaos and corruption, the appetite for doing something - anything - on Russia's behalf will sink further.

Yet it is not as if there aren't intelligent ways to spend aid money here: with $100 carefully invested, one could probably do a lot more than with $100 million handed over to Roskhleboprodukt. There are provincial reformers who need support, local charities to advise, schools to help with western books and funding. There is a whole generation to educate, a generation that is genuinely interested in, and open to, western ideas and culture. If that sounds like too big a job, other problems could be addressed. Russia is facing shortages of insulin, for example, without which diabetics die; and the newspapers are full of stories about tuberculosis, especially in prisons but among the poor as well.

A few foundations and the odd charity have worked out that there are ways to spend money intelligently. But, to date, almost no one in the official "help Russia" business has been interested in spending money intelligently. They have been interested in other things: shoring up Boris Yeltsin, or making the Russian money markets safe for American banks, or helping American and European farmers. No wonder our aid efforts have failed in the past, and no wonder they will fail again.