Politics of Poverty

Rolling the dice for international food aid: Congress to vote on reform

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Royce and Engel challenge the Farm Bill in the House

Oxfam and many dedicated allies, activists, farmers, and experts have been calling for a reform to the US food aid program for years now. So when Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce (R-CA), and the Ranking Democrat, Elliott Engel (D-NY) said they would challenge the Farm Bill on the floor of the House of Representatives, we cheered them on.

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Food aid shipped from the United States takes four to six months to reach its final destination. Right now, fifty-three cents out of every dollar we spend on basic grains for food aid ends up in the pockets of middlemen as a result of red tape and regulations. These regulations protect special interests, at the expense of hungry people, and waste up to $471 million in US tax dollars each year. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lentfer. Learn more: oxfamamerica.org/foodaid

The reason is simple: The number of people who need urgent food assistance is not shrinking, but the budget available to provide assistance is. Food prices are rising. Transport costs are rising. Inefficiencies and delays that might have been acceptable decades ago, simply aren’t any more. We need to do more, with less—urgently.

We know what’s wrong with the current food aid program. There has been a lot written on the subject. We have very good models for how to improve the program. Improving the program will mean helping more people, faster, better, and without necessarily costing more.

The only thing that stands in the way is politics.

We’ve lobbied and argued. We’ve hosted events, sat on panels, written blogs and briefing papers, talked to journalists, shot videos, appeared in videos, met with representatives, written letters, begged, pleaded. We haven’t made a lot of progress.

In the process, however, we have won a lot of support, educated policy makers, and gained new allies, including Royce and Engle, who certainly have a stake in the issue. The Foreign Affairs Committee is supposed to have jurisdiction over important US programs for international development and foreign relations like food aid. But the food aid program has been controlled by the Agriculture Committee and buried deep within the Farm Bill.

We now wait on the results of Mr. Royce and Mr. Engel forcing a vote on the issue of food aid reform. It’s a risky strategy; it can annoy influential people and losing the vote can set back progress.

But sometimes, you have to roll the dice, and force politicians to take a public stand.

That’s the gamble today.


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