Royce: Food Aid Debate Foreshadows Fate of Broader Overhaul

Jun 12, 2013

CQ Roll Call -- By EMILY CADEI

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce considers efforts to overhaul the United States’ international food aid programs — the largest in the world — to be “an acid test” for more expansive efforts to modernize the entire system of U.S. foreign assistance.

In prepared remarks for a committee hearing on the subject Wednesday, the California Republican argued that “if Congress can’t agree to help more people in less time and at less cost,” the results of the food aid changes, advocates claim, “then there is little hope for broader foreign aid reform.”

That’s an ominous warning for international development groups, who have been working for years to try and update both the food program and the multi-billion foreign assistance program, as a whole.

But a push by the Obama administration this spring to change the way the United States delivers food to hungry people abroad has been declared more or less dead-on-arrival in Congress amid strong resistance from the agriculture and shipping industries, which benefit from the existing system.

Backers of the status quo also argue that reducing the amount of food that comes from American farmers could fracture the broad coalition of interests that now supports funding for the humanitarian program.

“It is extremely difficult to find people to be enthusiastic about a bilateral foreign aid program of any kind and anything that peels off support is a risk,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., noted in the hearing. “While we may look, in an ideal world, at what is the perfect public policy and this may very well be it when it comes to food aid, I am concerned about the downsides and who do we replace those lost supporters with.”

In its fiscal 2014 budget request, the administration asked Congress to loosen strict requirements on its $1.4 billion “Food for Peace” emergency food aid program, which mandate that the vast majority of that aid come from U.S. farmers delivered on U.S. ships. The administration wants more flexibility to source more food locally, if that is the cheapest and most efficient option in a given circumstance. It also proposed doing away with a practice known as “monetization,” in which the United States donates food to overseas NGOs, which those organizations can turn around and sell to raise money.

Senators on the Agriculture Committee and Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture balked, scuttling those proposals. Only two small changes made it into the Senate-passed farm bill (S 954): the creation of a permanent $60 million program to fund purchases of food aid locally in the communities being served; and an increase in cash funding for NGOs to reduce the need to “monetize” food aid.

Royce clearly wants more. The new Foreign Affairs Chairman has been, somewhat unexpectedly, a leading voice for changes to the program, which he said in his opening remarks “would provide more flexibility, efficiency and effectiveness.”

That was echoed by the hearing’s witnesses — former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Andrew S. Natsios.

In his prepared testimony, Natsios observed that “this is not a partisan issue.” President George W. Bush, in whose administration Natsios served, “proposed similar reforms in several of his budgets which allowed USAID to procure up to 25 percent of total U.S. food aid locally, in the country or the region the aid is to be distributed.”

Both men emphatically rebutted lawmaker concerns that an overhaul of U.S. food aid would hurt American farmers or, by reducing the delivery of bags of food prominently labeled with American flags, would diminish U.S. standing and security internationally.

“In my judgement, the overwhelming percentage of the aid is still going to be in the form of commodities” — bags of food grown in the U.S. replete with the visible flag — “because of humanitarian needs,” said Glickman. “But at the same time, commodities are not suitable for everybody, every place and we should not be statutorily prevented from other ways of offering assistance. I just think this is a more modern way to get our food and our aid into these desperate places.”

‘Worst Abuse’

Royce singled out monetization as “perhaps the worst abuse of the U.S. food aid program.”

The Government Accountability Office, he notes, “called monetization ‘inherently inefficient,’ and found that it resulted in a loss of $219 million over three years.”

And, Royce continued, “dumping commodities often destroys local markets, putting local farmers out of business, while increasing the dependency on food aid that we’d like to see end. That’s why you’ve seen some countries like Rwanda shut down this easily abused practice.”

Royce and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., introduced a bill (HR 1983) to amend the 1954 Food for Peace Act, eliminating monetization as a form of non-emergency food assistance and instead giving USAID the authority to carry out non-emergency programs that help countries build resiliency and improve food security. The bill would also authorize food assistance to be delivered in the form of U.S. goods or cash to buy food locally.

Although advocates of an overhaul admit they are not going to secure the ambitious changes that the administration proposed, they still hope to convince lawmakers to ramp down the monetization program, at least.

The House farm bill, which will be on the floor later in June, will likely be their last chance to do so this year.

Royce, for one, is eyeing that opportunity.

“With the farm bill scheduled for floor consideration this month, members will have a chance to advance this common sense reform,” he said in his prepared statement.