Reformers look for the refresh button on US food aid

Food distribution in Dokolo, northern Uganda, by the U.S. Agency for International Development and its partner, ACDI/VOCA. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding its first-ever hearing focused on food aid reform. Photo by: Anne Shaw / USAID / CC BY-NC

The United States’ six decades-old food aid program might finally see reforms.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hear April 15 arguments for reforming the way the U.S. pays for, ships and dispenses food aid internationally. The hearing is the first of its kind in the committee’s history, and many food aid reform advocates hope it will be a turning point in a battle they’ve waged against red tape and jurisdictional infighting.

“There are lessons to be learned in how we approach food aid,” Liz Marcey, a senior policy advocate for government relations at CARE, told Devex.

“We are able to do more and to do it more efficiently,” she said.

The Food for Peace Reform Act of 2015, introduced by Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democrat Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware last month in the Senate, embodies many of the changes called for by members of the aid community. The current draft frees up about $440 million, according to a comment from Coons’ office, and would “feed up to 12 million more people per year.”

While the Food for Peace Reform Act looks promising, Wednesday’s hearing will likely examine more specifically which reforms will take precedent in the bill’s first revision since 1961.

Has US food aid policy expired?

Those in the business of food aid — organizations like Oxfam, CARE and Bread for the World — hope the hearing will help clarify some of the discussions rumored to be ongoing inside the U.S. Agency for International Development and shed light on potential deals the agency has sought to strike with U.S. shippers.

The overall goal is to build greater flexibility into the food aid process, by relieving some of the requirements around U.S. cargo preferences and by allowing alternatives to shipping U.S. food commodities overseas. Monetization — the practice of selling U.S. surplus commodities to pay for humanitarian operations — slows down and limits the reach of current food programs, according to representatives for Bread for the World and CARE.

Both organizations are waiting to see the new plans before endorsing any changes.

“We’ve not been intimately involved in the negotiations, but we were approached earlier this year by USAID about a potential deal that they had with the shipping industry,” Ryan Quinn, director of government relations at Bread for the World, told Devex.

The details of the alleged deal, Quinn explained, aren’t public, but the possible terms — namely some allowance for purchasing food commodities from local and regional markets, increased distribution of vouchers and cash and the possibility of eliminating the practice of monetization — “is a really exciting prospect for us.”

Still, rumored infighting at USAID and the perennial challenge of simply convincing Congress the issue is one they should deal with could continue to delay reforms. The hearing is a positive signal for reform advocates, and one that offers a welcome opportunity to air out sticking points in an effort to build a more efficient food aid delivery system.

Cash versus commodities

Critics of the current food aid delivery system decry a lack of flexibility in terms of the types of assistance U.S. agencies and their implementing partners are authorized to provide. They’re hoping to advocate on behalf of a system that better aligns policy tools with specific circumstances of a food relief operation.

“Sometimes commodities work, but sometimes cash or vouchers are better,” Marcey said, adding, “it’s about being sensitive to the context.”

In-kind food distribution in a country like Jordan, for example — where two-thirds of Syrian refugees live with family scattered throughout the country — tends to reach fewer people than if organizations used other methods, Marcey explained.

“Imagine if we could use cash or e-vouchers delivered to mobile phones,” she said. “In disaster scenarios where the population is dispersed, it just makes less sense for both donors and recipients to do in-kind food. I hope the hearing will center on what we can now do, in terms of cost-effectiveness and making the biggest impact.”

To the market

Currently, about 50 percent of U.S. food aid must be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels. These ships are generally more expensive than other carriers, and much more expensive than simply buying in country.

But attempts to change the laws — the appropriations of which fall under maritime and agriculture jurisdiction — typically result in friction between Congress, aid organizations and U.S. shippers. Over the past few months, however, a rumored deal, brokered by USAID with U.S. shippers and other stakeholders regarding aid transport, seemed to have been underway, though it has yet to become public.

Phil Karsting, administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service, responded to a question from the chairman of the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee during a hearing last week asking for the status of the talks.

“The deal has not been fully negotiated yet,” Karsting replied, “from my understanding it’s still in the works.”

Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, the subcommittee chair, commented that it would be “in the interests of transparency” to make the talks public; a comment that has raised questions in the aid community about whether negotiations stalled not because of NGO or shipping interests, but due to infighting at USAID.

“I think there’s definitely disagreement on the details,” Quinn said about the deal, “but having this hearing is the first step toward moving forward on some kind of reform.”

Misunderstanding about the way food aid works has fueled some of the disputes and confusion.

“Some have used that confusion to create a narrative that’s only serving in a lot of ways to confuse people more,” Marcey added.

Reformers hope this first hearing will provide a much-needed opportunity to cut through some of that confusion, educate stakeholders in the debate, and bring to the fore a reform process that has spent too long behind closed doors — or not on the agenda at all.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.