Taking the pork out of food aid

Times certainly have changed.

When I was a young Senate staffer in the 1980s, we tried to build congressional support for foreign assistance by showing how much of it was spent here at home — on a state-by-state, district-by-district basis. Food aid was the prime example: U.S-grown commodities, transported on U.S. ships, with the U.S. flag on every bag. Sure made us feel good.

{mosads}Unfortunately, as we have learned over the years, doing aid this way isn’t necessarily the most efficient use of taxpayer resources or the best way to feed hungry people.

The first reason is that quite often, the problem is not that there is insufficient food on local markets, but that poor people can’t afford to buy it. Under these circumstances, dumping shiploads of free food onto the area’s markets only puts local farmers out of business, making the problem worse.

The second reason is that buying food in the United States and shipping it across the globe is time-consuming and expensive. The cost of U.S. commodities can be as much as 30 to 50 percent higher than food purchased locally or regionally. It takes months for food shipments to reach the people who need it, and necessitates an entire infrastructure for strategic planning, pre-positioning of food, safe storage and quality assurance. The legal requirement that these commodities be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels means that 45 percent of our food aid is being spent on transportation and only 40 percent on food.

Third, we’ve learned from hard experience that if we want sustained impact, instead of responding over and over again to crises in the same places, we need to listen to locals and let them lead. There are certainly emergency situations where we must simply “give a person a fish,” to update the old saying, but the vast majority of the time the people already know how to fish, and we need to understand why they lack a pole.

Creating more flexibility in our food aid programs, which would allow the United States to buy food locally and regionally or provide cash vouchers when appropriate, is a long overdue reform that would increase the cost-effectiveness and impact of our aid. Making these changes ought to be simple, but nothing in Washington ever is.

Some opponents of food aid reform argue that because the current system benefits American agribusinesses and shipping firms directly, there is a powerful lobby in favor of food aid. If those industries no longer have something to gain from food aid, the program will lose its political support base.

While that argument has discouraged Congress from tinkering with the system, most Americans believe that we should give foreign aid because it’s the right thing to do — not out of direct self-interest. These days, they would much rather see a foreign assistance success story than a plug for corporate welfare.

Another argument often made is that our merchant marine, which serves as a reserve fleet for our military in times of war, literally depends on shipments of food aid to keep it afloat during times of peace. But this rationale, too, falls apart upon closer examination. Most of the ships that transport food aid do not meet the criteria for being militarily useful. And if these vessels are genuinely important for U.S. defense preparedness, shouldn’t the Pentagon be subsidizing them out of its own pockets instead of taking food from the mouths of hungry children?

It’s high time that our outdated food aid and cargo preference laws — written more than half a century ago — were modernized to reflect today’s realities. Reaching more vulnerable people faster and at no extra cost ought to be a matter of government accountability and sheer common sense.

Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, co-chair of the Accountability Working Group of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm.

Tags food aid Foreign Aid foreign assistance Merchant marine
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