There might be big changes coming to the United States food aid program this year, and it could save millions of lives.
U.S. food aid, which began in the 1950s, spends an average of $2 billion a year* and has done much to prevent hunger and starvation across the globe. However, it has also been criticized for being inefficient, wasteful, and even self-serving.
Currently, up to 75 percent of the money we spend on food aid has to be used to pay for purchasing food from American farmers and shipping them overseas. This food saves lives, yes, but up to 16 percent of the money is spent on shipping. To make matters worse, American commodity crops are often significantly more expensive than food bought elsewhere.
Without such high requirements for American commodities, more money could go to buying food and saving lives. In fact, the United States is the only donor country to mandate by law that a certain amount of its donations must support its own economy.
Most international development scholars recognize that hunger and famine are seldom caused by a lack of food within a country – they result when people within the country lack the resources to gain access to the food that is already there.
Shipping commodities overseas can actually make this problem worse: under the current system, the United States ships American-grown food to foreign governments and NGOs, and they often sell them locally to finance development projects. When these cheap commodities enter local food markets, local farmers’ profits are lowered, making it harder for them to support themselves.
President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget takes a small step to change this dynamic, reducing the mandated amount of U.S. food aid for American commodities to 55 percent. This means nearly half of the money we spend on international food aid could be used to purchase food locally.
According to Ravij Shah, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, the money saved by this change will feed 4 million more people and enable USAID to respond nearly 14 weeks faster.
Since this change was announced, major development agencies – including Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, Bread for the World, Church World Service, and others – have come out in strong support. Editorial boards from the Washington Post and the New York Times have endorsed it, and many development workers are excitedly hoping that this change will represent one step towards reforming an inefficient system.
There are, of course, those who oppose the change, such as shipping countries and seamen who profit from the governments’ reliance on using their services to transport bulk commodities. Farmers, who strongly opposed changes to the food aid system in the past, may resist changes less now that ethanol production is keeping food prices high. At any rate, the fact that most of the opposition comes from those who benefit from the inefficiencies in the system rather than those who are seeking to help hungry people should give us pause to consider.
The U.S. food aid program is popular, representing our better nature and desire to help others. President Obama’s plan to reform the program could be just one step towards a more efficient, sustainable program that would save more lives and improve economies worldwide.
*Food aid represents just .036% of the proposed FY14 budget
Janelle Tupper is Campaigns Assistant for Sojourners.