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Flexibility in US food aid to Syria should be the rule – not the exception

In Syria, the US has been able to deliver food aid using a flexible approach to needs on the ground. Yet such flexibility is the exception in US aid. President Obama's proposed reforms would allow for more efficient practices, such as using local food supplies.

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The Syria regional humanitarian crisis has affected 8.3 million people. Many require urgent food assistance, and the situation is worsening

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But the food crisis for people in Syria – and for those who have fled – is not  just a challenge of food availability. The conflict has brought a sharp drop in domestic food production, and many hungry people simply can no longer afford to buy food because prices are too high or their livelihoods have been wiped away by war. Millions have been forced to leave their homes, and food prices have skyrocketed, reportedly as much as 200 percent in some areas.

In crises like these, our organizations – CARE USA and Oxfam America – have learned that meeting humanitarian needs requires the flexibility to ensure good intentions result in positive outcomes. The United States is the largest donor for emergency food assistance in Syria. A substantial portion of that assistance has been provided through cash, vouchers, and by buying food locally and regionally through something called the Emergency Food Security Program.

While far more aid is still needed in Syria and the refugees in neighboring countries, the US government has been able to pursue a flexible approach in the country that better responds to needs on the ground. Yet such flexibility is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to US food aid programs. Instead, the vast majority of American food aid comes from another program altogether, one that is ensnared by red tape and regulations from another era.

The US government began purchasing American crops to export as food aid with the 1954 Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act. Sixty years later as every other facet of our society has evolved, this legislation still restricts how our aid programs can operate.

In April, President Obama’s budget proposed to bring food aid programs into the 21st century. These reforms end wasteful practices and eliminate programs that are saddled with outdated regulations. The changes would use the savings to boost programs like the Emergency Food Security program that have a proven track-record of success. And here’s the best part – they would allow the US to extend life-saving aid to up to 4 million more people without costing taxpayers one extra penny.

With hunger bound to arise as a topic of discussion at the G-8 Summit later this month, quicker and more flexible food aid can be a practical solution. In contrast, the current system requires that bulk commodities be bought from a limited group of preferred agribusiness corporations in the US, and then be shipped on preferred vessels before they are dispersed into local markets. Often these shipments compete with local and regional farmers, undermining long-term food security for the very people we aim to help.

US commodities designated as food aid often take three to five months to reach their destination. By comparison, local purchasing takes approximately 35 days. In times of crisis, this delay can be the difference between life and death.


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