Food Aid Reform
New York Times -- By EDITORIAL BOARD
Food aid is one of the most important tools of American foreign policy. Since the mid-1950s, the United States has spent nearly $2 billion annually to feed the world’s poor, saving millions of lives. But the process is so rigid and outdated that many more people who could be helped still go hungry. Reforms proposed by President Obama will go a long way toward fixing that problem and should be promptly enacted by Congress.
Under current law, a vast majority of international food aid must be purchased from American farmers through the Department of Agriculture and shipped overseas in American-flagged vessels. This has been a boon for domestic farmers and shippers, but more than 30 studies in the last decade have concluded that the system is inefficient, costly and even harmful to the very communities in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere that Washington purports to help.
The United States is the only donor that still gives food rather than cash, including to some humanitarian groups who sell the food in overseas markets and use the proceeds for development projects. Some experts say the sale of American commodities in developing countries often drives down local market prices and discourages local food production, which runs counter to the goal of encouraging self-sufficiency.
Under a proposal in Mr. Obama’s new budget, nearly half the $1.5 billion requested for food aid in 2014 could instead be used to buy food in bulk in countries in need or to provide individual recipients with vouchers or debit cards for local food purchases. Food bought locally is cheaper — 50 percent less in some cases — and saves shipping costs that consume as much as 16 percent of the food aid budget. American officials say the reforms could hasten the delivery of lifesaving aid by as much as 14 weeks and feed many more people.
Although international aid groups have endorsed the changes, there is opposition from the farm and shipping lobbies that have scuttled previous reforms. The food aid budget should not be a backdoor subsidy for domestic producers; and even under the new approach, 55 percent of food aid dollars would still be used to purchase and ship American commodities. When budgets are tight, every program must be scrutinized for maximum return. Mr. Obama’s proposed reforms will feed more people for the same amount the United States spends now. There is no excuse for not putting them into effect.