When Food Aid Hurts

American food aid is a mess. Although the U.S. spends more money on food aid than any other country, its program prioritizes the needs of American farmers (and the American shipping industry) over those of food insecure individuals. Under the Food for Peace program, the U.S. government provides mostly American food, grown by American farmers and transported by American ships, to developing countries. This is very inefficient:  the food is much more expensive (it has been estimated that buying local food could feed 4 million extra people for the same cost), and slow to arrive, taking up to six months to reach its destination country. As NPR has pointed out, “America’s policies on food aid are singularly generous — and also unusually selfish.”

Even worse, this method of food aid can be devastating for farmers in regions receiving food aid. Sure, in some situations, there simply isn’t enough food available in the region, and food aid must be shipped from somewhere. But hunger is not always a supply-side problem; it often is a result of poverty, and a subsequent inability to purchase food. So in situations where local farmers have harvested food, distributing food from the U.S. (or elsewhere) can destroy their market. And given that 50% of the world’s hungry are small-scale farmers, providing American food can change food aid from a potential solution for assisting food insecure farmers into a real problem that exacerbates their tenuous situations. In Enough, the authors describe being in Ethiopia during a hunger crisis. American food was being shipped in and distributed locally – while Ethiopian farmers watched their harvested food sit in warehouses, destined to rot, with no one nearby who had the purchasing power to buy it.

The hypocrisy of U.S. food aid is particularly evident when U.S. food is not distributed during true emergencies, but given to charity organizations that then sell the food on local markets to raise funds for their own operations (monetization of in-kind food aid). If this food is sold at lower than market prices, it can be devastating to local farmers. During the recent debate regarding U.S. food aid, you may have noticed that many “charities” are opposed to proposals to reform the food aid program. Those charities are, unsurprisingly, the ones that are receiving funding through “monetization.”

Changes afoot in the U.S.?
Although a glimmer of hope arose when President Obama suggested modest improvements to the U.S. food aid program (his proposal would allow the U.S. government to buy more food from local markets, though over half would still have to be purchased from American farmers and shipped with U.S. companies), the Senate and House have refused to consider meaningful reform in their farm bills.  The most sensible and least disingenuous proposal actually came from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which notes that “with food aid currently comprising just 0.86% of total U.S. agricultural policies …  the impact of this shift will be negligible.”

What would better food aid look like?
Given the political realities in modern America, there is no hope that the U.S. will have an entirely sensible, altruistic policy at any point in the foreseeable future. But in an ideal world, what should the U.S. do?

Guideline 15 of the FAO Voluntary Guidelines to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security provides some suggestions. The Guidelines note that donor states should “base their food aid provisions on sound needs assessment, targeting especially food insecure and vulnerable groups. In this context, donor States should provide assistance in a manner that takes into account food safety, the importance of not disrupting local food production and the nutritional and dietary needs and cultures of recipient populations. Food aid should be provided with a clear exit strategy and avoid the creation of dependency. Donors should promote increased use of local and regional commercial markets to meet food needs in famine-prone countries and reduce dependence on food aid.” In addition, “[i]nternational food-aid transactions, including bilateral food aid that is monetized, should be carried out in a manner consistent with the FAO Principles of Surplus Disposal and Consultative Obligations, the Food Aid Convention  and the WTO Agreement on Agriculture.”

For its part, the Food Aid Convention notes, among other things, that governments should consider purchasing food from other developing countries (“triangular transactions”) or locally. In addition, governments are urged to “pay particular attention to … avoiding harmful effects on local harvests, production and marketing structures, by appropriately timing the distribution of food aid.” The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food agrees, and has also recommended that donor states conduct ex ante impact assessments of food aid programs based on human rights principles and standards.

In theory, at least, the solutions for the U.S. are fairly simple:  stop monetization of U.S. in-kind food aid; purchase all or most of its food for food aid from local or regional markets, except when that is not possible; align its food aid programs with the Food Aid Convention; and work to ensure that its food aid programs align with internationally recognized human rights standards. Whether any of this would ever happen, of course, is another story …

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