A U.S. congressional report says that U.S. food aid could purchase food cheaper and get the food to the people faster. The problem standing in the way is the requirement that all U.S. food aid be purchased in the U.S. Many international programs purchase the food close to the locations that need it. Instead the U.S. buys it's own farmers food and sends that food half a world away.
From the Washington Independent, Mike Lillis gives us the details in the report.
“The way the United States does in-kind food aid is particularly costly and inefficient,” said Kimberly Elliot, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “The key is flexibility, and cash offers that better than anything else.”
Elliot’s is not a new argument, but it is one that hasn’t gotten very far on Capitol Hill. That’s because the nation’s largest food aid program, called Food for Peace, requires that the crops be purchased from U.S. growers, processed through U.S. companies, and shipped using U.S.-flagged vessels — an enormous prize for America’s farmers, millers and shippers, who continually lobby Congress to keep the program exactly as it is.
And Congress continuously listens.
Each year during the second half of his tenure in the White House, President George W. Bush proposed that up to 25 percent of the Food for Peace funding — roughly $2 billion a year for the last half of the decade — go to buy food closer to those who need it. In each case, the proposal went exactly nowhere in Congress.
Not that Food for Peace was ever designed to be a humanitarian endeavor. Created in 1954, the program’s aim was to help farmers get rid of surplus crops without sinking local food markets. Elliot said that, in the decades since, the design might have changed, but the intent has not. “We no longer have the government buying up surplus stocks,” Elliot said. “Instead they’re just writing checks … But it’s still a way of subsidizing farmers.”
While that might be good for the homeland, it doesn’t make for the best system to address global hunger, the GAO report suggests. The United Nations World Food Program, purchasing food locally in Africa between 2001 and 2008, spent 34 percent less than comparable aid provided to the same region by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which was required to purchase, package and ship the food from the United States, GAO found. For aid to Asia, the cost difference was 29 percent, again favoring local purchases.
Delivery times also suffer when food is shipped in-kind, GAO found. Analyzing WFP aid to 10 African nations between 2004 and 2008, GAO reported that it took an average of 147 days for in-kind international deliveries to arrive, while local and regional purchases took just 35 and 41 days, respectively.
The report arrives as the number of poor and malnourished people has topped 1 billion, a problem exacerbated by spikes in food and fuel prices going back several years. And while the need has grown, the food-aid dollar, under the in-kind system, isn’t going nearly as far. Another GAO report, released in 2007, found that the jump in business and shipping costs consumed roughly 65 percent of America’s emergency food aid budget — a trend resulting in a 52 percent decline in the amount of food delivered in the five years previous.