Getting more out of food aid

Tackling the global food problem requires better and more sustainable agricultural systems. The good news is that experts, private sectors and governments across the globe are moving in that direction. The bad news is that it will take time to improve productivity and food systems in food-deficit, developing countries. Today, 925 million people have too little to eat and 12,000,000 metric tons of food would be required to close the food gap in the 70 neediest countries. Thus, U.S. food assistance continues to be a critical component of America’s global food security arsenal.

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Smart use of food aid is also important. The Food for Peace Title II Program (“Title II”) is our nation’s largest food aid program, donating U.S. commodities through programs conducted by private voluntary organizations, cooperatives and intergovernmental organizations. In the years leading up to the 2008 Farm Bill, Title II was increasingly used for short-term emergency programs, which would often be renewed year after year. As a consequence, developmental programs were scaled back or closed in countries where food crises are a common occurrence, impeding efforts to use food aid more effectively to build local capacity and decrease reliance on emergency assistance. 

A better balance was struck in the 2008 Farm Bill. Most Title II funds continue to be used for emergencies. However, Congress enacted the “development safebox,” allocating a portion of Title II funds each year for programs that combine food aid with development projects in areas where hunger is a persistent problem. Results include improved agricultural productivity and incomes for small farmers, better management of natural resources, decreased child malnutrition, and less reliance on emergency food aid, ultimately saving the American taxpayer money. A good example is Ethiopia, where all of those changes were seen and, as a result, the need for emergency food aid was cut in half during the 2011 drought.

Similarly, a stronger results-based management system was established for the Food for Progress Program. It uses public-private partnerships and value chains to improve agricultural systems in developing countries that are implementing market-oriented policies. Examples include the many farmer associations and cooperatives that have been established and continue to grow – increasing business activity and incomes and serving as development models. In Mozambique alone, 9,000 smallholder farmers participated in a dairy development program that now benefits over 300,000 people.

Also thanks to changes in the last Farm Bill, pre-positioning of U.S. commodities in overseas warehouses has decreased delivery times for emergency food aid significantly. Another way to shorten delivery time is the USAID “Emergency Food Security Program,” which makes $300 million available each year to buy commodities overseas, closer to where the food will be distributed. 

Because of quality, aggregation and transportation issues, local or regional purchase does not necessarily mean the commodities are bought from small farmers or that costs are lower than using U.S. commodities, as some assume. Another option is to give people cash and food vouchers during disasters so they can buy food in local markets.

Concerns have been raised about the potential for food aid to interfere with local production, marketing and commercial imports. Those potential problems are well known and must be considered in distribution, monetization and local or regional purchase programs. The law therefore requires controlling risks by analyzing the markets in recipient countries, identifying the commodities that are most appropriate and needed and providing the food aid in ways that are least likely to have disincentive or market distorting effects.

One thing that would help U.S. food aid programs is more complete reporting of program methodologies and results. These programs have a record of success and are critical for America’s global engagement. The story needs to get out.

Levinson is the executive director of Alliance for Global Food Security and president of Levinson & Associates. Learn more at www.foodaid.org.