Monday, May 12, 2008

Editorial: US Food Aid Policy Needs to Change

My friend and fellow Nieman David Kohn has an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun on how official U.S. policy makes the food crisis worse. He argues that the U.S. could help more people for the SAME AMOUNT of money it is spending now on food aid by buying food locally instead of shipping it from the U.S. as now required by law.

In fact, U.S. generosity is being undermined by its insistence on using only food produced and shipped from America. Kohn reports that "the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that between 2001 and 2006, the average amount of food sent abroad declined by more than half" due to rising fuel costs.

Even worse, as Kohn says, U.S. policy has subverted the humanitarian mission of non-governmental organizations like Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services:

. . . The government donates much of the food it buys to such groups, which then sell it in developing countries. The transactions yield millions in profits for aid groups, which in turn use the money to pay for other aid work.

It's a perverse system: In essence, aid groups become grain and soybean brokers, making money by selling food in developing countries - and then using the profits to help the poor in those same countries. Most experts say it would be far more efficient to provide direct funding to these groups, rather than giving them food to sell. And because the food is sold to brokers in the target countries, who sell it at market prices, there's no guarantee that the neediest can even afford it. . . .

That's why CARE, which is run by Helene Gayle (who used to be at the Gates Foundation and before that at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control), is opting out of the government food donation system.

I remember thinking that was the right thing to do when I read about CARE's decision last year. Until David's editorial, however, I hadn't understood that standing up for that principle was going to cost CARE $45 million in real dollars, not just in donated food. Read David's whole editorial--it will open your eyes on food aid.


Anonymous said...

David Kohn's editorial is very enlightening. Providing effective, efficient food aid is obviously a challenge, but even if the hurdles can be overcome, the United States should do a better job of addressing the underlying causes of food shortages, particularly population pressures. 201 million women worldwide have an unmet need for modern contraceptives that would allow them to plan their family size. An increased U.S. investment in international family planning programs today would translate to a reduced need to provide food aid in the future, by helping ensure that developing countries' populations do not continue to grow at a rate that cannot be sustained by available food resources.
Jennie Quick
Population Services International (PSI)

Christine Gorman said...

Thanks, Jennie, but I'm not sure I buy the link between population pressure and the food crisis. Going back to the Irish potato disaster of the 1800s, most modern food crises seem to stem more from trade and economic policies than the carrying capacity of the planet.

Don't get me wrong, I think family planning is vital for a lot of reasons but I'm just not sure it's the answer to everything.