Time for food aid reform that helps hungry countries – and the US

Under the Food for Peace program, aid organizations working overseas must buy food directly from the US instead of using local sources. If politicians want to cut government costs and avoid aid dependency abroad, they’ll support President Obama’s proposed reforms to US food aid.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
Zimbabwean villagers collect their monthly rations of food aid in the Rushinga district of Mt. Darwin, March 7. More than 6 million people in the region are at risk of severe food shortages because of repeated cycles of drought and flooding. Op-ed contributor Rachel Bergenfield writes: 'Allowing humanitarian organizations to innovate in proven ways that help more people...at no extra public cost is [a] rare easy decision.'

“The short rains have failed, the long rains failed, our livestock has died. If this next short rain fails, then we fear we will die,” he told me. It was the 2011 drought in eastern Africa. I was interviewing the leader of a Kenyan town that borders Ethiopia for an emergency-needs assessment that I was leading for an aid organization.

His situation is not unlike that of many others facing severe food shortages. But for many of them, the disturbing irony of their desperation is that crop surpluses may exist just a half-day’s drive away from them. A simple mobile-phone transaction could transfer money to vendors who could drive that food to their community. Alternatively, an aid organization could transfer money or a food voucher directly to them.

While funding from European donors makes such approaches possible, US food aid policy under the 60-year-old Food for Peace program constrains the ability of US-funded aid groups to do any of this: Aid organizations funded by the United States are typically required to buy food directly from the US. 

 In fact, current food aid policy actually harms the people whom the US is trying to help. President Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget will fix this. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates that the proposed changes will lead to significant efficiencies and cost savings.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama's proposed changes face narrow but fierce opposition from shipping and agriculture businesses and lawmakers in Congress from big farming states. But if politicians are serious about the government cutting costs and avoiding cultivating aid dependency abroad, they’ll support Obama’s proposed reforms to US food aid.

Beyond practical necessity, the humanitarian argument for reform is clear: For an aid worker to have to tell starving parents that she and her organization are equipped to sustain their kids' lives with merely the use of a cell phone but cannot because of US government policy is unacceptable.

My conversation with the town leader in Kenya was set amidst burnt land, hungry families, and animal carcasses for as far as I could see. But there was food, trucked from other parts of the country, for sale in shops that were a two-hour walk from where we sat. A half-day drive would have taken us to crop surpluses in Kenya’s Rift Valley.

Using a mobile phone, it would have been relatively easy for me to transfer money to vendors in the Rift Valley, rent a local truck, and send crop surpluses to northern areas in need. It also would have been easy to create a voucher for drought survivors that could be used only for food and water. It would have been easier still to simply transfer money directly to these people so that they could buy what they needed.

But none of that was possible under the Food for Peace Program. Instead, aid organizations must ship American grains, beans, and other agricultural commodities. They must then look at the data garnered from need assessments like mine to see where the need is (usually outdated by the time it is used), and then they must organize elaborate caravans to truck imported aid from central locations to what is often very remote places.

In short, current US food aid policy is the equivalent of McDonald’s shipping every french fry from its headquarters in Oakbrook, Ill., to its franchises throughout the world.

Some humanitarian and development organizations sell donated US agricultural commodities internationally and then use the cash for their programs. US government policy should not incentivize them to enter the business of selling US products in low-income countries.  

But regardless of whether aid is provided directly or sold, there is rigorous evidence that the practice of importing US commodities is harmful. Dumping large quantities of imported goods on low-income markets and selling them at below-market rates harms local businesses by driving down prices.

When local businesses are unable to compete with cheap (or free) international imports, economic recovery and post-disaster development may be delayed. The practice runs counter to the aims of humanitarian aid and risks cultivating dependency.

President Obama’s proposed FY 2014 budget would address these problems. About half of the food aid allocation in the 2014 budget would go toward buying food locally, whether in bulk or through innovative solutions such as vouchers. In other words, the proposal would better enable the organizations that are closest to emergency situations to draw on their local knowledge and evidence about good practices to design the most effective and efficient solutions.

USAID estimates that the changes would enable it to reach 4 million more people, 11-14 weeks faster, with 25-50 percent cost savings. Regardless of politics, this policy makes sense.

But the president’s proposal is facing opposition. Twenty-one senators from farm states and many powerful business constituencies are lobbying against it. They claim that the change will cost agricultural and shipping jobs, despite food aid only accounting for 0.5 percent of agricultural exports. These special interests are essentially using humanitarian aid aimed at saving lives as a backdoor agricultural subsidy.

Many of those lobbying against the reform support evidence-based policymaking and the moral justification for US humanitarian assistance. Others oppose “big government” and domestic social programs that cultivate so-called dependency, which is exactly what US food aid policy embodies abroad.

So the opposition seems to be about narrow special interests rather than real ideas about how to most cost-effectively help people who are trying to survive disasters.

The US government is dealing with a lot of complex questions about how to make public spending more efficient. Allowing humanitarian organizations to innovate in proven ways that help more people to survive disasters at no extra public cost is the rare easy decision.

The current focus on more efficient and accountable government spending provides US politicians with the right political timing to stand against the lobbying effort and finally enact the reforms necessary to change harmful food aid policy.

Rachel Korberg (formerly Bergenfield) graduated with a master’s degree in international relations from Yale University and has worked in development and humanitarian assistance throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. Ms. Bergenfield previously worked in Kenya for the French NGO Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED). The views expressed here are her own.

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