Lawmakers skeptical of cash-based foreign food aid

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Lawmakers from both parties on Thursday voiced skepticism about efforts to shift U.S. international food aid from goods to cash payments.

At a hearing of the Agriculture Committee’s Livestock and Foreign Agriculture subpanel, lawmakers grilled federal officials about the effect of waste and corruption on foreign food assistance.

“Rather than rushing ahead with efforts to convert a time-tested food aid program into cash-based assistance, it is imperative that we monitor effects of the programs and flexibilities already in place,” subcommittee Chairman David Rouzer (R-N.C.) said.

{mosads}Ranking member Jim Costa (D-Calif.) worried about what he called “shenanigans” with cash payments in countries with high levels of corruption.

“I have a sense that the traditional food aid support is a much more meritorious way to give assistance to those who need it,” he said.

Republican Rep. Ted Yoho (Fla.) echoed those concerns.

“I would rather give commodities, I think it is more representative of America and better serves our taxpayers,” he said.

The 2014 farm bill provides more flexibility for the U.S. Agency for International Development to boost cash-based assistance programs, and the number of such programs has increased since 2010.

But critics worry that it’s harder to ensure transparency with cash payments than food and other goods.

An official from the Government Accountability Office said there were always risks with both forms of aid. But Thomas Melito, the GAO’s director of International Affairs and Trade, also told lawmakers USAID has not implemented required financial controls or oversight mechanisms for its cash-based programs.

In 2014, USAID provided $410 million to 28 different countries in the form of cash transfer and food voucher programs, the majority of which ended up in civil-war torn Syria.

Catherine Trujillo, the acting deputy inspector general for USAID, acknowledged the risk that food aid wouldn’t make it to those who need it most, especially in countries with endemic corruption or at war.

“We are going to see a higher risk of losses in those areas, especially in places vulnerable to fraud, waste, and abuse,” Trujillo said. 

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