Fixing food aid to better feed hungry people

A man receives his family’s monthly food ration in Pakistan. Inefficiencies surrounding in-kind gifting of agricultural commodities pose a threat to the international community's ability to assuage hunger in developing countries. Are there other less costly and speedier solutions? Photo by: USAID Pakistan / CC BY-NC

The people of the United States have played an important role in stanching the tide of world hunger for the past 70 years.

Given primarily in the form of in-kind gifting of agricultural commodities, the $2.5 billion annual donations comprise 6 percent of total U.S. development assistance. Initially, this in-kind gifting was utilized to effectively distribute the excess food production that the U.S. has enjoyed for nearly a century.

However, now inefficiencies have grown up around the production, packaging and distribution of food to hungry nations around the globe. These inefficiencies, encouraged by arcane and self-serving legislation, now threaten to limit the ability of well-meaning people to assuage the hunger that menaces much of the developing world.

At first glance, in-kind gifting of food appears to produce a modicum of efficiency to this complicated process, but in fact efficiency suffers greatly. Begun as a means to distribute the excess food produced by the American farmer, the process has evolved into one that mass-produces food specifically for distribution to hungry countries.

This food is now imposed on countries that may have sufficient food stockpiled but are unable to distribute it due to logistical or infrastructure limitations. This blunt instrument technique harms indigenous farmers and disincentivizes hungry countries in their efforts to become self-sufficient.  

In fact, in Haiti, where I live, a heavily subsidized bag of American rice is $10 cheaper than the same-sized bag of Haitian rice that is grown only a few miles from the market. These hard working farmers have all but stopped growing rice and other crops because of these anticompetitive practices.

In addition to the harmful effect that current U.S. food aid programs can have on the economies of the developing world, they are also remarkably inefficient. The present rules regarding shipping food aid to recipient countries includes the compulsory sourcing of food from the U.S., at least 50 percent of the food must utilize U.S. flagged ships, the attending crew must be wholly made up of U.S. citizens and resident aliens, and at least 15 percent of food aid is available for monetization by qualified nongovernmental organizations.

This monetization provision allows for NGOs to sell the donated food to generate funds to augment their other often-unrelated programs: while benefitting the NGOs, it does little to advance the goal of feeding the hungry. Additionally, delivery of food by ship to distant countries results in months of delays when the hungry recipients may only have weeks to live.

In-kind gifting, while inefficient as a default position for distributing food aid, can be beneficial in extreme resource poor environments where food is simply unavailable due to famine or conflict.  In these rarer situations, in-kind gifting, may, in fact, be lifesaving.

However, many developing countries have advocated for other less costly and speedier solutions. Cash-based and voucher distribution systems work well in countries that have an acute need and have ample food supply in adjoining regions. These cash-based systems not only have the benefit of more immediacy of hunger relief, but also may serve to bolster local economies if done well.

Since shipping and logistical costs are minimized, more efficiency is realized; saving money and feeding more people. Additionally, utilizing recipient governments centrally and locally in the process serves to reinforce indigenous cultural pride and minimize resentment towards donor countries.

Real concerns regarding cash-based food aid distribution include diversion of funds meant for hunger relief and misusing them to support terror activities. Other unfriendly countries could, in fact, use food as a political weapon against its internal adversaries, resulting in further disintegration of the regional stability. Much of this concern can be offset by utilizing voucher systems and the limited use of in-kind gifting at the epicenter of the time of need.

Presently, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware have reintroduced a food bill, Food for Peace Reform Act of 2015, which would improve food aid distribution by abolishing the burdensome requirements of U.S. only food sourcing, shipping and monetization. These improvements in efficiency are projected to increase present funding by $440 million per year, with the ability to feed an additional 8 million to 12 million hungry people. This would allow the flexibility of comingling in-kind gifting and cash or voucher-based distribution systems as needed in acute and chronic food shortages.

The war on world hunger has been successfully conducted for the better part of a century. Initial gains in food production and distribution have been integral in the reduction of starving people in the developing world. However, if we can institute the further improvements in systemic efficiencies — such as cash-based or voucher food distribution systems and reducing burdensome requirements on in-kind aid — I know we can complete the laudable goal of achieving universal food security.

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About the author

  • David Vanderpool

    Dr. David Vanderpool is founder and CEO of LiveBeyond, a faith-based, humanitarian organization bringing medical and maternal health care, clean water, education, orphan care, community development and the gospel of Jesus Christ to the oppressed in Thomazeau, Haiti. He is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and a fellow of the American College of Physicians and Assistant Professor of Surgery at Texas A&M University College of Medicine and is a regular contributor to medical journals on tropical diseases and to political publications on U.S. disaster response/developing world goals.

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