Politics of Poverty

Just a rumor or overdue reform?

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Rather than cutting food aid, reforms could place saving lives over special interests.

Politico yesterday reported a rumor that US food aid programs could see major changes in the next budget. The article frames this move as putting aid “on the chopping block,” but it is not at all clear what is really going on.  Enacting major cuts to food aid programs would be a terrible idea that would cost lives without making a dent in our debt.

But there is another, more hopeful possibility that the administration is about to push for long overdue reforms that would make US aid programs more effective and cost efficient. This could be a very, very good thing.

Let me explain. The US reaches millions of people each year with life-saving aid. From the Horn of Africa to the Sahel to the most recent humanitarian crisis in Syria, US assistance to address hunger and food insecurity is crucial. The US is the most generous donor of food assistance in the world and gets a lot of credit for this.  Cutting aid doesn’t make sense, but why might the Administration seek to fundamentally change this program?

A child in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia stands near a wall made of USAID food aid containers in the flood-destroyed area of Bahere Tsege in 2006. Photo: Liz Lucas/Oxfam America

The reason is that current US food aid programs are excruciatingly inefficient and in some instances counter-productive to helping people build sustainable agricultural livelihoods. Oxfam has been outspoken in its criticism of the way in which the US runs its food aid program. And we’ve offered common sense reforms to make the programs more efficient—reforms that would allow US assistance to reach millions of more people without costing a single extra penny. We applauded Chairwoman Stabenow and Ranking Member Roberts of the Senate Agriculture Committee for their leadership and steps to reform the food aid program as they wrote a new Farm Bill last year.  The bill passed the Senate on a broad bipartisan basis, but floundered in the House.

If the Obama Administration puts forward a proposal to pursue these kinds of reforms, it would mark an effort to break the stranglehold of special interests in the US who profit from the current rules, regulations, and red-tape governing food aid programs. It would be a bold and important step.

Real reforms would give aid humanitarian agencies greater flexibility, including the ability to purchase food from the cheapest, most efficient source. This would in turn reduce costs and speed delivery. It would bring our programs into the 21st century, in line with most other countries. This is precisely what a recent USDA study of local and regional procurement projects demonstrated. For almost every commodity examined, buying from local or regional sources was cheaper and uniformly faster than shipping it from the US. Many aid groups already do this with their own money and through other emergency aid accounts such as the Emergency Food Security Program out of the International Development Account.  But the primary food assistance program remains essentially outdated, lumbering, and wasteful.

Such a change would also clean up the jurisdictional mess created by current configuration of food aid programs, which are authorized in the Farm Bill, funded through the Agriculture Appropriations bill, but implemented by USAID. Not only would reform rationalize the system, but it would help create a more cohesive approach to the current patchwork of programs to deal with global hunger.

Oxfam America campaigned last year saying that Washington should “stop playing with food aid.” Thousands of people supported us in sending a message to their lawmakers to enact this reform.  If the rumor pans out and the Obama Administration is serious about food aid reform, it would seem the message got through.  Good on President Obama!

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