Politics of Poverty

US food aid: making the most with what we deliver

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A report takes a hard look at the commodities the US uses to respond to disaster and food insecurity, such as is unfolding in the Horn of Africa, and makes concrete recommendations

This post was first published in the Guardian’s Poverty matters blog here.

The worst drought in 45 years
, a drought with no end in sight at the moment, is ravaging the south-central US and wreaking havoc on farmers and ranchers who are seeing their crops fail and their cattle suffer from lack of water.

Meanwhile nearly half way around the world in the Horn of Africa, a broad swath of the region – including parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia – is suffering a severe drought that threatens to push millions of people already living on the brink of disaster into a full scale humanitarian crisis.

Even the dry clinical language of the Famine Early Warning System Network (pdf)raises alarm bells:“Households in pastoral and marginal cropping areas in the eastern Horn currently face moderate to extreme levels of food insecurity due to ongoing drought, increasing staple food prices, declining purchasing power and in some areas, limited humanitarian assistance…”

“Current assistance programs are inadequate to mitigate existing and expected food deficits and high malnutrition. In areas with humanitarian access, expanded programming should be implemented to address current and expected food insecurity. However, development of new strategies is critical in order to reach affected households in areas with limited humanitarian access.”

For farmers in the southern US, the drought is surely a disaster that will not only ruin their crops, but holds the possibility of running them out of business. Federal support in the form of crop payments, subsidized crop insurance, possibly disaster payments and an array of other social safety net programmes, will help soften the blow.

Poor farmers and pastoralists in the Horn of Africa face a much different and much deadlier reality. In Ethiopia, 3.2 million people currently need humanitarian assistance; in Kenya 2.4 million people do. And in Somalia, the current drought is compounding an already desperate situation where median prevalence of acute malnutrition was 25% in December last year and has deteriorated since. Without assistance many people, and children especially, will die. The US is responding to this unfolding disaster, for example releasing $80m in food aid to Kenya.

How the US responds to this disaster, or more precisely with what, is the subject of renewed scrutiny thanks to a new report released last week, Delivering Improved nutrition: Recommendations for Changes to U.S. Food Aid Products and Programmes. The study, commissioned in 2008 as part of the farm bill reauthorization, takes a hard look at the commodities the US uses to respond to food insecurity and makes concrete recommendations.

The current basket of commodities has been roundly (and rightly) criticized for being inadequate, especially to meet the needs of infants, young children and pregnant and new mothers who have unique nutritional needs. Corn-soy blend (CSB) or wheat-soy blend (WSB), are, in their current forms, not much more than empty calories with a few vitamins sprinkled in. Hardly the stuff needed to help prevent malnutrition (much less reverse it).

Updating the nutrient profiles of US food aid commodities by, for example, including an animal source protein, providing vegetable oil as part of food aid rations and updating the vitamin and minerals that are blended in most food aid commodities, are important steps that should be taken in order to improve the nutritional impact of US food aid.

However, the real challenge posed by the report is not scientific. It is political and also possibly technical.

Specifically, the proposed changes are not cost free. Applying the updated commodity specifications to nine programmes administered in 2009 raised the overall cost of these programmes by nearly $100m. In a cost-cutting mood, will agriculture appropriators provide enough money to update the commodities to improve their nutritional content while maintaining current food aid levels?

Oxfam and others have pressed for more local and regional purchase of food aid as a way of supporting smallholder farmers in the developing world. A key question is whether milling operations in developing countries have the capacity and technical skill needed to produce the improved foods.

These aren’t easy questions to answer. On the political front, the US can find substantial cost savings in existing food aid programmes, for example by eliminating the cargo preference rule, which requires all US food aid be shipped on US-flagged vessels regardless of whether there are cheaper alternatives. Reducing waste in the programme would make it more efficient and offset the some of the added cost associated with the higher-priced ingredients needed for the improved food aid quality.

The technical issue should be considered a call to arms for USAID, donors from other countries and private sector partners to innovate and invest in processing facilities in developing countries in order to increase local capacity to mill and supply these foods. It’s a challenge yes, but one that if overcome would have long-term benefits for food security and even poverty reduction.

The US could tackle these challenges or look the other way as our food aid programmes fail to live up to their potential. Hungry children deserve more. Will the US deliver?

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