Though a small part of the U.S. federal budget, food aid has been a critical expression of American values and interests since it was used to help rebuild Western Europe after the Second World War. Millions of tons of U.S.-grown and processed food have been shipped to dozens of countries, helping 3 billion people over the past 60 years and promoting peace and prosperity through programs supported by policymakers across the political spectrum. The grains, cereals, oil, beans, and other commodities meet rigorous federal quality and nutrition standards and are packaged to withstand rough handling and climatic conditions.

There are periodic calls to change the way the United States provides food aid to vulnerable people. Yet change does not always mean improvement. For example, one change often suggested is the elimination of market-based aid called “monetization.” This is a process in which nongovernmental organizations or recipient governments sell U.S. food aid commodities through local marketing systems to bolster supplies. NGOs then use the proceeds to fund food security and agriculture development projects.


Food for Progress monetization programs are supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each proposed program is analyzed by the USDA to ensure commercial markets will not be disrupted, tangible benefits exist for the country’s agricultural sector, quantifiable outcomes are defined, and the commodities are appropriate and delivered in the right amounts. When used wisely, monetization is not just a matter of selling commodities to fund a program: both the sale of the commodity and the funded activities generate economic and social benefits.

Everyone involved in the food aid debate wants the same thing: an end to the need to provide food aid relief in any form. We all are working toward a day when starvation, malnutrition, and their threat are banished from every corner of the globe. With it will go not only a great deal of suffering, but the desperate conditions that can give rise to conflict and violence. Achieving this goal, and the increased peace and stability it brings, requires sustained economic and social development. US food aid monetization programs are one effective and efficient tool to help achieve it.

According to a November 2012 report by Informa Economics, monetization can provide benefits to a recipient country that would not occur if US taxpayer dollars were transferred directly to NGOs or governments. Namely, low-income, food deficit countries face market constraints that are often overlooked by those arguing for direct cash transfers. Monetization can overcome limited access to credit, smaller than typical commercial volume shipments, currency risk, limited foreign exchange reserves to import commodities, and price sensitivity.

Unfortunately, many discussions about monetization tend to be theoretical or uninformed about how it actually works. Food aid, including the monetization of US food commodities, helps millions of people in countries of significant interest to the US and international community.

One such country is Mali, where French soldiers, acting under a UN mandate and with US support, are helping to restore order to a country destabilized by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. From 2009 to 2013, the $4.4 million food aid program our organization ran in Mali used high-quality wheat and vegetable oil produced by American farmers – all of which are dietary staples that were already imported commodities. We sold these commodities through open tends and used the proceeds to help local communities strengthen the fonio (an African “ancient grain”) and sesame seed value chains. The results? More income for producers, more jobs in food processing, and more abundant and better quality products for consumers.

Working with farmers, farmer associations, government officials and others, the market-based Mali monetization project has achieved its intended results.

First, the project increased farm production and productivity through the dissemination of improved seed varieties and training in modern agricultural practices.  Next, it improved processing and transformation opportunities through the introduction of appropriate technologies. Third, it has facilitated access to credit and linkages to financial institutions. Finally, it’s provided management training, marketing, and other organizational capacity building to farmers’ organizations, women’s groups, and small-scale businesses.

As a result of this market-oriented approach, tens of thousands of farmers and others in Mali’s agrobusiness sector are producing more and higher quality food, earning higher incomes, and strengthening economic relationships with enterprises throughout West Africa. Higher output, productivity, and quality is increasing the sector’s attractiveness to investors and the government’s interest in infrastructure and other public investments to further spur economic growth.

It’s the classic virtuous circle of development, and it was all set in motion by a small investment of commodities grown by farmers across the United States.

Cowan is deputy director of Sustainable Food and Agriculture Systems at International Relief & Development.