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Proposed Food Aid Reforms Put International Programs at Risk
Image: Richard Nyberg / USAID / Flickr

As Congress moves forward to complete the Farm Bill, members of Congress have an opportunity to reform the way our country provides international food aid.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator Rajiv Shah have proposed a major—but controversial—reform of the food aid system. They deserve commendation for seeking to improve the way the U.S. delivers international food aid. American food aid has traditionally meant buying American food and shipping it to areas of need. But the Obama Administration realizes that it's better to have cash than to have stuff. American dollars could help more people and do more good if we had the flexibility to spend aid dollars in whatever way is most appropriate to a crisis.

But what works well in theory doesn't easily translate into new legislative success. The reason why our existing food aid policies have worked so well for 60 years is that they have broad political support and use American food to feed the hungry. Changing that program to cash is a difficult undertaking—even if for the right reasons. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and malnourished families on the other side of the world, after all, are not a formidable lobby group. We are concerned that in this era of tight budgets, a cash fund supporting the international poor will not long remain dedicated to that purpose and could easily be cut.

We support reform approaches that would lock in these changes within a new Farm Bill. There is wisdom in putting both international food aid and the domestic food stamp programs into the Farm Bill where American support for local farmers also supports nutritional needs at home and around the world.

With 868 million people around the world—more than 1 in 10 people on earth—going to bed hungry every night, we must find a way to reform food aid so that it improves our international aid system, provides flexibility, is politically palatable, and works on the ground as well as in theory.

A suggested proposal would be for a system within the Farm Bill that includes important aspects of the Administration's proposed reforms: more cash for emergencies and greater flexibility in spending to provide emergency food aid—which builds the capacity of local farmers to feed their own people. Reforms would also maintain the best of the existing Food for Peace programs by providing cash grants to organizations such as World Vision to tackle the root causes of hunger and a minimum level of development assistance so that farmers around the world can feed themselves and their neighbors, rather than relying on aid.

The ultimate food aid solution will enable hungry people to feed themselves. We know how to turn regions with failing food systems into productive breadbaskets. Just this May, I was in Tanzania meeting with farmers who had been introduced to modern farming methods, advanced seed, and more profitable markets. Starving farmers had become professional food producers. They were so successful in fact that our programs shifted from teaching agricultural techniques to financial management and planning.

We believe that any food aid program must include this kind of basic development aid. We question proposals that would decrease or eliminate these vital programs that can end long-term dependence on aid. The House Farm Bill is strongly committed to effective uses of food aid. It ensures a minimum level of $400 million per year for developmental food aid programs that improve agriculture, nutrition, and household incomes, like the ones I saw in Tanzania. Ideally, this would support a world where food aid is no longer needed.

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Proposed Food Aid Reforms Put International Programs at Risk