A recent proposal to modernize the Food for Peace program could bring much-needed and long-overdue reform to U.S. policy on international food aid. The proposal comes at a dire time for the state of food security around the world. The UN declared in February 2017 that four countries–Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen–are experiencing famine, or are on the brink of it. Protracted conflict, coupled with drought conditions in some areas, are driving the humanitarian crises. Yemen is currently experiencing the world’s largest food insecurity emergency as a result of its ongoing civil war, compounded by funding shortages and access constraints in delivering humanitarian assistance.
In April 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres bestowed upon the Yemeni conflict the dubious distinction of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Conflict-related violence, lack of access to food and safe drinking water, and the spread of cholera and other treatable illnesses have taken a toll on the country of 22 million since the war began in 2015. Malnutrition and food insecurity are especially acute, with 17.8 million people currently requiring emergency food assistance, according to estimates from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Beyond this, 3.5 million people face Emergency levels of food insecurity that could escalate to famine levels should food imports and/or food relief be further restricted.
The U.S. and the international community continue to respond to the crisis in Yemen by providing humanitarian assistance and food aid. The USAID Office of Food for Peace reports that in fiscal year 2017 it contributed $550 million in emergency food assistance, including both U.S.-sourced wheat, peas, and vegetable oil, as well as locally and regionally procured food and food vouchers. To-date, in 2018 FFP has spent $201 million in support of the UN World Food Program (WFP) in Yemen.
Despite the billions that the U.S. contributes annually to this and other international food assistance programs, a proportion of food aid never makes it the intended recipients, while millions of people around the world remain on the brink of starvation. Relative to other countries’ and private voluntary organizations’ programs, U.S. food aid is criticized for its inefficiency, high non-food costs, and slow delivery that fails to keep up with global emergency needs.
Some of the largest impediments to more effective food aid stem from stipulations set out in the Food for Peace Act (FFP). The U.S. government’s largest provider of international food assistance, the Office of Food for Peace, sets restrictions on domestic procurement–requiring 100 hundred percent of all food aid commodities be purchased from American farmers–and cargo preferences–mandating that at least half of food aid be shipped on American vessels. These restrictions are regressive artifacts of 1950s efforts to subsidize U.S. agribusiness and shipping interests.
Desperately in need of an overhaul, the stage is set for major revisions to be made to the FFP as part of the 2018 Farm Bill that expires on September 30th. Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Chris Coons (D-DE) and Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) recently proposed companion bills that aim to ease some of those restrictions on U.S. overseas food assistance. Their Food for Peace Modernization Act (FPMA) would reduce the U.S. commodity preference from applying to 100 percent of food aid to 25, allowing room for the remaining 75 percent to be sourced more cost-effectively via locally or regionally procured commodities, vouchers, and debit cards for buying food in local markets.
The FPMA would also fully eliminate the practice of monetization–currently a part of U.S. law that requires 15 percent of all U.S.-donated food be sold first in local markets by the receiving aid organizations, with the proceeds used to fund development projects. Critics of the practice contend that monetization loses between 30 and 50 percent of each dollar to superfluous shipping and administrative costs. Monetization is also shown to further exacerbate food insecurity by depressing local prices and thereby harming local farmers and traders.
According to estimates, these restrictions on the production, shipping, and distribution of food aid wastes about 30 percent of current U.S. international food aid program funds, or $400 million a year. Proponents of the FPMA argue that the proposed reform would “free up as much as $275 million to provide life-saving food to nearly 9 million more people in a shorter time period.”
Should the proposed changes be implemented, the potential gains in terms of lives saved is beyond quantifying. Carrying with it this potential to alleviate hunger for millions of people, such a reform would, on a policy level, mark a radical shift in U.S. food aid strategy. Food aid reform alone, of course, will not eradicate famine or food insecurity. As long as open hostilities and blockades impede access to humanitarian assistance, levels of food insecurity will persist. But when international pressure on the local parties is successful in opening up humanitarian access, assistance efforts will be better positioned to deliver food to the hungry where and when they need it most.