Forced gift economy Belgium 1914-18

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Excerpt of the memoirs of Herbert Hoover Vol 1 p.173ff

belgian relief3

[During WW1 Belgium has been surrounded by the german army; while the surrounding seas were ‘war fronts’. A whole nation has been made prisoner. Herbert Hoover directed the Belgium relief movement during this time – a real heroic enterprise: fighting for the survival of people often against the military the governments. His description tell very eloquently how all the governments did not really help humanitarian causes because their first incentive was war… and how on the other hand, the people did all that was necessary to survive well]

« We quickly determined we must ration the whole population with cards.Because we were reducing normal good intake by over one-third and everybody had to fare alike, we started with bread but followed that with other commodities as the situation became more tense.
And rationing was not as simple as it sounds. Separate cards had to be issued to each detached person and to each family for each major commodity, with coupons or punch squares marked for days or weeks. The farmers had to have special settlements and so did families with a cow or chicken. Some ate at restaurants, and so there were a hundred variations.

To simplify organization and accounting, we separated the « Provisioning » of the people absolutely from the « Benevolence » to the destitute. Not only were they entirely dissimilar problems but the personnel required was a different type.
« Benevolence » especially was the woman’s job. The rations were sold on behalf of « Provisioning » for cash by the communal committee at the same price to everybody. The « Benevolence » purchased the ration cards from « Provisioning » and gave them to the destitute. « Provisioning » supplied from its cash intake the needs of « Benevolence. » « Provisioning » ultimately took control of all food warehouses, flour mills, slaughter houses, dairies, bakeries and restaurants. In time we requisitioned all the farmer’s production above the needs of his own family. We guaranteed profitable prices to him for subsequent crops in order to increase production.

The Belgian national currency had disappeared almost over night. At the start we printed an emergency issue which was used to support various services and it obtained its stability because it would purchase rations—the only food-based currency of modern times. However, the Germans quickly established their forced issues and we were compelled to withdraw our currency.

We naturally had a price problem because we had to fix prices for the rations and for the farmers. Initially we had what were subsequently known as black markets. As our supply was so meager people naturally tried to get around the end. At the start we tried to establish maximum retail prices on the few unrationed commodities and to work back from them to prices for the producer.
Finally our situation became so difficult that we took over all surplus produce from the farmer and rationed it out with the imports. We effectively killed the black market.

belgian relief1In Northern France weset up a committee under Professor Edmond Labbe of the University of Lille. The final officer in distribution was again the maire of the commune. There were 1, 200 French communes, but the draft of all able-bodied Frenchmen in advance of the invasion, together with the fact that some maires went out with the refugees, left many communes without a head. There was no authority to appoint new ones. Therefore we assumed authority. By the end of the Relief over 500 of them were women. They turned out to be faithful and painstaking almost beyond belief. They accounted for the last centime and every gramme. They had a lot of accounting. The rations had to be sold to those who could pay. Upon a hint from the French Government we secured from the Germans permission to pay French separation allowances to wives and widows of French soldiers and other government pensions out of our sales receipts; they in turn could buy ration cards. But French francs had disappeared and there was no money to take their place. We, therefore, issued a currency of our own. The Germans levied on some of the towns for « reparations, » and thus obtaining our currency, spent it to buy services and the like. To stop this we issued for every single commune a separate currency which was good only in that particular commune. We thus had 1,200 currencies. And the maire had to sign every single note and make the books balance. One of my vivid pictures is calling at a still lighted maire’s office about midnight and finding an efficient French woman still signing 50-centime notes; nor did she desist while we talked with her about the food and the commission’s problems.

As our cash receipts from rations in both Belgium and France in the earlier years exceeded the needs of « Benevolence » the Relief undertook to keep the schools open and pay the teachers. We even financed some building and loan associations to prevent them from going bankrupt. We paid the minor judiciary, the police and other officials.

One result of pioneering the first Food Administration with methods of processing, distribution, rationing, price control, guarantee, requisition of crops from farmers, etc., was that when the Germans instituted food control of their own people later on, they studied our experience, and followed many of our devices. Two years later, I was called in to advise the British in installing their food control, and a few months after I was called in by the French Government.

belgian relief2As I have said, the care of the unemployed and the destitute was the function of « Benevolence. » In addition to giving out free ration cards which « Benevolence » bought from « Provisioning » they provided to this group fuel, clothes, rent, and medical care and many other services. They looked after the hospitals, insane asylums and other public institutions for the support of which they received cash from « Provisioning. »
One of our daily inspirations was the efficiency of the Belgians and French and the utter devotion they showed. In the end there were over 50,000 of them, mostly women, in the work—and the highest pay they got was free rations. The women developed a zeal that sprang from the spiritual realization that they were saving their race. They had the major responsibilities of administering « Benevolence. » Among the tasks of « Benevolence » were the soup kitchens.
Immediately upon the outbreak of war, by the charity of citizens and local committees, soup kitchens had been established where bread and good thick soup were issued. As we became more systematized the soup kitchens were continued as a supplement to sparse food of the ration for special cases.
They were also a vehicle for economical distribution of meat, fat and vegetables.

The soup was no ordinary soup. Over the years I visited hundreds of « Soups » and the devoted women who ran them insisted on my sampling all of them. They were great cooks. The soup cards issued by « Benevolence » being the credential, the daily chore of the children was to go for the soup. The emblem of Belgium during the war should have been a child carrying a soup bucket.
Another service of « Benevolence » was indeed full of sentiment. We soon learned from certain almost epidemic diseases that children must have special supplies of fats in addition to the meager rations of staple food given to adults.
Gradually we built up a noon meal for them in schoolhouses and public buildings until in the end over 2,500,000 children and expectant mothers were served daily—again by the volunteer Belgian and French women. Among other devices we invented was a big and solid cracker with fats, cocoa, sugar and flour, containing every chemical needed for growing children. We ultimately manufactured it on a huge scale and served one cracker every day to the 2,500,000 children. With it as a start they were given some sort of stew and imported condensed milk—or fresh milk when it was available.
From the rebuilding of the vitality in the children came the great relieving joy in the work of Belgian Relief. The troops of healthy cheerful chattering youngsters lining up for their portions, eating at long tables, cleaning their own dishes afterwards, were a gladdening lift from the drab life of an imprisoned people. And they did become healthy. When the war ended it was found that children’s mortality and morbidity were lower than ever before in Belgian andFrench history.
The system of child-feeding which we developed was destined to be spread over most of Europe after the war. And over forty nations after World War II, under the leadership of Maurice Pate and our staff who learned it in Belgium, administered it.
Another of the side issues of « Benevolence » was the lace workers. For over a century Belgian women makers of hand lace had led the world. It was a cottage industry aiding in livelihood about 50,000 families. With the loss of the market, not only were they destitute but the art was likely to be greatly injured for lack of continuity. The women of « Benevolence » set up an organization by which their product was bought with ration cards and further aids—enough to live on. Each piece of lace was marked with its maker’s name and books kept. It was hoped that these could be sold after the war and any further realization was to be paid to the makers. We financed the operation. When the war ended we had about $4,000,000 worth of lace. I had not expected anything to come of it but to our great surprise it found a market at prices which returned substantial dividends to each lace worker.
Still another side issue of « Benevolence » was clothing for the destitute. We imported over 55 million pounds of second-hand and new clothing, materials, buttons, thread, needles and what not. The women organized great work rooms where it was sorted, made over, repaired and from which it was distributed. One phenomenon was of special interest. Women all over the world started knitting wool garments for the Belgians. They were mostly sweaters. The Belgian women carefully unraveled them and knitted them over again into shawls—which was their idea of a knitted garment.
With the innate gaiety of the race and their sense of millinery the workroom women were able to sort from our second-hand American clothing evening gowns of every fashion period for thirty years back. They put on an exhibition of them and charged admission to see it.
The finance of « Benevolence » in the end absorbed the major part of our sales of rations. In fact our grants amounted to $615,237,147.47. But it had cared for the destitute, the children, the « soups, » the lace workers, the hospitals, and other public institutions. It was a monument to the women of Belgium and France. »