For the first time since World War II, more than 50 million people have been displaced by conflicts around the world. In addition, as evidenced by the earthquakes in Nepal and cyclone in Vanuatu, the mortality and economic loss associated with natural disasters is not diminishing. During such times of crisis, efficient delivery of emergency aid is critical. Yet the United States, the world’s largest donor of food aid, is still stuck in the 1950s in how it delivers aid.
The U.S. government has the capacity to reach more people, in the fastest way possible, using the same amount of money. But parochial special interests continue to erect artificial barriers, limiting the flow of lifesaving aid to disaster- and conflict-afflicted areas. Several nongovernmental organizations and a few lawmakers have tried to fix the delivery of U.S. food aid, but they have failed.
In 2013 the U.S. spent $1.7 billion to reach 42.6 million people in 56 countries who are unable to produce enough food or lacked the resources to obtain it. U.S. food aid is primarily authorized by the Department of Agriculture and implemented through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Food for Peace program, established in 1954 under President Dwight Eisenhower. At the time, the U.S. had a massive agricultural commodity surplus, and shipping it abroad was considered the best approach to fight world hunger. However, the amount of U.S. food aid has decreased by 64 percent over the last decade because of rising costs, most significantly from transportation.
Under the Agricultural Act of 2014 and the Cargo Preference Act of 1954, food aid must be purchased in the United States, and at least half of it must be transported on U.S.-flagged vessels. No other major donor has such onerous and outdated restrictions. Canada and the European Union have abandoned mandatory in-kind food assistance in favor of vouchers or cash, which offer more speed and flexibility in responding to different crises.
A 2011 analysis by the Government Accountability Office shows the current transportation and procurement process can delay the delivery of emergency assistance by up to 14 weeks. In the wake of 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, for example, flexibility through the International Disaster Assistance account allowed USAID to commit $10 million to the World Food Program in order to purchase food regionally, which saved critical time, money and lives. Outside of that exception, a regulation that mandates transporting food aid only on U.S. flagged ships raises the costs of shipping by as much as a factor of three, according to a recent study by George Mason University — funds that could go toward more food for more people.
Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Chris Coons, D-Del., have estimated that fixing food aid could allow the United States to reach 12 million more people annually with the same amount of money. They introduced the Food for Peace Act, legislation that would clear the decks for modernizing food assistance last year and this year. In 2013, Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., introduced a similar bill in the House calling for reforms to food aid.
These measures go about reforming food aid differently, but they share three goals: 1) buying commodities from markets near emergencies and providing cash or vouchers, 2) decreasing the agricultural cargo preference percentage from 50 percent on-U.S. flagged ships and 3) reducing or ending food aid monetization, a practice that would allow aid agencies to sell excess commodities to fund nonemergency programs.
However, these reform efforts have thus far failed to pass Congress. The interests of well-funded lobbyists continue to trump the political will to feed 12 million more starving people every year.
The reasons for the current system are pretty simple. Since Food for Peace was put in place, the so-called iron triangle of special interests — shipping firms, agribusiness and development groups — has held the status quo in place. The United States is still far and away the largest single donor of emergency food aid in the world, and there is no indication that congressional appropriations for food aid will disappear anytime soon. This is partly because the shipping industry, agribusinesses and development NGOs all benefit and therefore lobby to keep appropriation levels up. The current system creates a win-win-win for all actors — except for the 12 additional million people each year who could receive lifesaving aid if we could break the grip of special interests and enact reforms.
Funding levels have been decreasing in recent years. And because of price or quality, some agricultural commodities such as vegetable oil are almost always cheaper to procure from the United States. This has led some to argue that lobbying by these industry groups is what’s keeping food aid afloat. But subsidies to special interests have been eating away at potential lifesaving assistance, and the current status quo is no longer viable.
The Food for Peace program, which has fed more than 3 billion people in 150 countries, enjoys bipartisan congressional support even without lobbying from the shipping industry. And paying nearly three times the market rate for transporting emergency food assistance is neither economical nor morally acceptable.
Besides, recent reports show a clear link between food insecurity and political instability. Instead of subsidizing the shipping industry with critical taxpayer money that is earmarked for fighting hunger, getting emergency food aid to those in need efficiently and in a timely manner is in the United States’ long-term national security interest.