A great America deserves a great international food aid policy

Getty Images

If Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wants to ensure that America remains a great country, one place she or he could start is by working with Congress to reform America’s international food aid policy.  Currently, U.S. food aid programs benefit about 46 million people every year around the world who are facing serious food shortages because of catastrophic events. Many of the people who benefit from those programs live in dire poverty and, for them, US food aid is literally a life saver. 

The United States currently has a major leadership role in global emergency food aid programs even though the government spends less than 0.05 percent of the federal budget on such food aid programs.  U.S. food aid programs are important for humanitarian reasons but they also make a critical contribution to US foreign policy by creating good will and sustaining America’s political credibility in many developing countries.

{mosads}However, currently the U.S. international food aid programs are constrained to be inefficient by legislative mandates that cumulatively have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars over the last several decades and substantially reduce America’s ability to help the world’s most vulnerable populations in places such as Syria, Sudan, Burkina Faso, and Bangladesh. 

If Congress and the next U.S. president reform U.S. food aid programs then up to an additional $400 million a year, about 30 percent of the current U.S. food aid budget, could be used to substantially expand the amount of food aid provided through those programs.  Those funds would enable U.S. food aid programs annually to help between four and ten million more people around the world in countries experiencing unexpected food shortages.

To improve the effectiveness of U.S. food aid programs, three major flaws built into those programs should be eliminated: monetization of food aid, the mandate to source almost all food used for aid purposes from the United States, and agricultural cargo preference.

First, in contrast the U.S. requirement that almost all food aid be sourced from U.S. farmers and processors, most other major donor countries such as Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, and other European countries, rely primarily on regionally and locally sourced food aid.  Regional sourcing substantially reduces the costs of delivering food aid to where it is needed saving millions of dollars in shipping costs, while at the same time making sure the food gets there more quickly

Second, the practice of monetization should be terminated.  Monetization is a process through which food is given to some Non-Government Agencies, shipped by the NGOs to the countries where those NGOs operate, and then sold in local markets to fund the NGOs’ projects in those countries.  The monetization process can waste as much as sixty million dollars a year, as the NGOs obtain only 70 cents of revenue for each tax dollar spent on food that has to be sourced in the United States and then shipped to where it is sold. 

Worse still, even though NGOs are required to analyze potential impacts on local markets to minimize disruptions, at the margin monetization has the potential to make recipient countries more dependent on U.S. aid. When the food obtained by NGOs is sold in local markets in the country where the aid is needed food prices may fall, driving down local farmers’ incomes and reducing their incentives to produce food beyond their own households’ needs for local markets.  

The better choices would be to allocate aid funds currently spent on monetization either directly to food aid recipients through use of food vouchers or similar cash-based mechanisms, which increases demand for local food and production incentives for local farmers, or to NGOs for immediate use in their food security related programs. 

Third, agricultural cargo preference is an exceptionally costly way of delivering food aid from the U.S.  Instead of sourcing food from local sources, agricultural cargo preference requires at least half of all food aid to be shipped from a U.S. port on U.S.-flagged vessels at freight rates that are much higher than comparable rates charged by foreign-flagged carriers.   

Since many of the recipient countries are African and Middle Eastern countries, transoceanic delivery from U.S. ports can often take up to 3 months.  Furthermore, many of these vessels are among the slowest and least energy efficient in the international maritime fleet, further increasing transportation costs. 

Alternatives to shipping food aid, such as local and regional procurement and cash assistance, are 25 to 53 percent cheaper and can increase delivery speeds by up to fourteen weeks, especially for landlocked countries.  Fast delivery is critical for reducing morbidity and mortality, especially for children aged two or below, who are in the most important window for nutrition during their lives.  On those grounds alone, the proposed reforms have the potential save many lives.

By itself, the United States cannot solve all the world’s hunger problems. But by ending cargo preference, shifting to local and regional sourcing, and terminating the monetization program, the next U.S. president and Congress could go a long way towards providing food aid to an additional four to ten million people worldwide without expanding the food aid budget.  Moreover, reaching more people in need at no additional cost to the U.S. taxpayer is likely to do nothing but good for the standing of the United States in its relationships with developing nations, as well as with other developed countries who are its allies in the mission to end global hunger. 

Ryan Nabil is a financial services and agriculture studies research associate for the American Enterprise Institute’s Economic Policy Studies Department. Vincent H. Smith is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of economics in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University. 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton

More Foreign Policy News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video