Is the U.S. doing enough to alleviate the world food crisis?
President Bush has asked for almost $1 billion in new funds. But critics say the aid may come too late.
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Bush's proposed $770 million in new food aid to help the world deal with spreading hunger, added to $200 million in extra funds released in April, would bump total US food assistance for 2008 and 2009 to $5 billion.Skip to next paragraph
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This infusion, if approved by Congress, would be welcome, say experts. In general, the US provides about half of global food aid, as measured by value.
But the $770 million would do little to help the hungry in Burma, Haiti, or other nations now identified as problems by the US Agency for International Development's Famine Early Warning System. That's because the Bush proposal is for the fiscal year 2009 budget.
"The concern is how soon these commitments can be realized. There is definitely a lag time when it comes to assistance," says Noam Unger, senior manager of the Foreign Aid Reform Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
On May 1, Bush also repeated his previous call for Congress to approve a major change in how US food aid is delivered.
Currently, most aid is provided in the form of US-grown commodities bought by the government and shipped to trouble spots. The White House wants to be able to spend at least 25 percent of aid money overseas, buying local food directly from local providers.
That would increase efficiency of aid delivery and help develop local agricultural markets, which in turn could ease hunger in the long run, say experts.
In the past, US farm politics has prevented this move. US food aid programs have been backed by farm state lawmakers partly as a way to boost constituents' incomes.
But with ethanol production pushing corn prices higher, and prices for commodities generally high, farmers might accept the "untying" of a percent of food aid, say some.
"This could be an opportunity to make some innovative changes in terms of how the US provides food aid," says Mr. Unger.
In recent years most developed nations have switched from commodity to cash aid. But the big US farm bill now under consideration by lawmakers may not include the switch when it emerges from Congress, perhaps later this week.
For this and other reasons, the Bush administration has made noises about vetoing the farm bill – meaning the political future of the untying of food aid remains unclear.