Food for thought in the Sahel

Farmers everywhere know that any year could be a bad year. Sometimes they are lucky, other times they are not. Last year’s harvest was particularly bad in the region, known as the Sahel.

In this crisis as in others, children under the age of 5 are the most vulnerable, with thousands suffering from hunger so severe that it often ends in death. Faced with starving children, women take drastic measures, even gathering scant wild fruits and leaves to feed their families. In Chad, where Sedoisa lives, women dig anthills to eat the grains and seeds the ants have stored. Families are increasingly on the move, seeking food for their animals and themselves even across national borders.

Despite plenty of warnings of a looming crisis, aid has been too little and too slow to arrive. Donors have so far provided only 25 percent of what aid agencies estimate is needed. The U.S. is leading the way, so far providing $100 million to meet emergency food needs in the region.

Part of the delay has been the way in which aid is delivered, especially by the U.S. More than half the aid provided by Washington in response to the crisis has come in the form of food shipped from the United States. Sadly, this is generally the case when it comes to our food aid.

Although Americans provide half of the world’s food aid, this generosity is undermined by the requirement that this assistance be in the form of food instead of cash, making it slow to arrive and economically very inefficient. Additional requirements that U.S. food aid must be shipped on U.S. vessels substantially raise costs. A report to Congress estimated that for each dollar spent on food aid, less than 50 cents is actually spent on food. The rest is shaved off for shipping and handling.

Recognizing that this costs lives, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is taking the extraordinary step of providing cash to aid agencies working in the Sahel to purchase food either locally or in nearby countries where harvests have been better. While it may not be intuitive to think that there is food available in a region experiencing such shocking hunger, there is. But years of inadequate investments in agriculture have left many poor farming households vulnerable to shocks like drought, so most exhausted their assets months ago. And that means that food is simply out of reach for them today. A quicker and more effective way of fighting hunger would be to buy food locally or give households cash to purchase their own food.

For years Congress resisted giving USAID the authority it needs to make local and regional purchase of food aid a regular practice, despite the fact that it’s also cheaper for taxpayers. This has to change. While shipping food aid from the United States might make sense in some limited instances, it should not be the only option for effectively, efficiently reaching those in need.

It is also important to recognize that providing emergency food aid is a band-aid solution for a much deeper problem. As in the Sahel, hunger is most often a problem of access — poor people don't have enough money to buy food — rather than of availability.

Shifting our food aid to cash for local purchase is one way to critically improve our response to crises. Investing more in developing country agriculture in the long term is another. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) have introduced legislation that would improve emergency response to food crises and provide long-term, sustained support for developing countries to promote food security and stimulate rural economies. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) is sponsoring companion legislation in the House of Representatives. But entrenched interests in Washington are blocking the bills.

Congress must take urgent action to improve the way we address global hunger. And Congress must change the way we deliver food aid. Doesn’t Sedoisa deserve it?

Raymond C. Offenheiser is the president of Oxfam America.