When U.S. congressional appointees meet this week to negotiate the new farm bill and debate divisive food and agriculture programs, the big question for food aid reform advocates will be: Is anyone listening?
For months U.S. development officials, NGO leaders and President Barack Obama have championed changes to the nation’s 50 year-old system for delivering food to developing and crisis-afflicted countries. But despite gaining more momentum than it has in years, food aid reform remains at risk of getting drowned out by a fight over controversial domestic spending.
Obama’s 2014 budget proposal called for sweeping food aid reform measures that would have relocated food aid jurisdiction from the agriculture committee to state and foreign operations. A House bill cosponsored by reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Karen Bass (D-CA) called for similar changes. The Senate-passed farm bill includes provisions for greater flexibility to purchase food locally, and a reform amendment fell only nine votes short when the House passed its version last September.
For any of the momentum gained from those efforts to make a difference this year, reform advocates will have to resort to pushing incremental changes when the bill goes to conference Wednesday.
Rallying for food aid
Reform advocates were encouraged to see that representatives who have raised the issue in Congress were included in the list of conferees and assigned to negotiate the trade title of the farm bill, which includes the Food for Peace program.
“I’m pleased to see that Royce and Engel are in the conference committee. That means there are some people in the house who have actually thought about these issues who will be around the negotiating table,” Chris Barrett, food security expert and Professor of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, told Devex. “Maybe the House will start to acknowledge that we’ve learned a lot about how to do food assistance effectively, and we understand something about the tradeoffs associated with that, rather than taking a step back to the 1990s.”
Barrett and others can only hope their biggest champions within the conference committee will have enough clout to raise the political profile of the issue, or convince party leaders to get their members behind the reforms.
“It all depends [on] how much influence the foreign affairs committee has over the [agriculture] committee,” said Phil Thomas, who worked on five different farm bills over a 40 year career at the Government Accounting Office and now heads George Mason University’s Global Food Security Project.
Even without a comprehensive food aid reform package on the table — like those proposed by Obama in April under the House bill — reform supporters are hopeful the conference committee can still free up some cash for more flexible spending options, while getting a foot in the door for bigger changes down the road.
There are a handful of steps the conference committee could take to move food aid in the direction of greater flexibility, Mark Lotwis, vice president for policy and government relations at InterAction, told Devex.
Reform advocates hope a $60 million dollar pilot project that showed local and regional purchase of food commodities can be faster and cheaper than purchasing U.S. commodities and shipping them overseas – will become a permanent, annual addition to the U.S. food aid menu.
That change — which amounts to 4 percent of the roughly $1.5 billion of yearly U.S. food assistance — has met fierce opposition from the “iron triangle” of food aid interests: the shipping industry, farmers associations and a group of implementing partner organizations that benefit from current food aid “monetization” policies, which allow them to sell donated U.S. food commodities.
Options on the table
Reformers hope recent struggles to get aid to the ongoing Syrian crisis may convince Congress to approve a combination of small changes to the way emergency and non-emergency funds are categorized and apportioned.
“You wind up having to pursue food assistance strategies that are known to be slower, more expensive, more fraught with risk simply because you suddenly ran out of emergency authority,” said Barrett. “That’s crazy. If taxpayers knew we were doing that, I think people would be up in arms.”
One option is to increase the percentage of non-emergency funding that can be used for administrative and other expenses from 13 to 15 percent, as proposed in the Senate farm bill.
Two more sections of the Senate bill give the U.S. Agency for International Development administrator flexibility to spend up to 20 percent of available funds as cash, instead of in-kind donations, down from the administration’s original proposal of 45 percent.
Finally, reform advocates like Lotwis are hopeful that the creation of a new Community Development and Resilience Fund could help free up money for rapid emergency assistance by counting towards the so-called “safe box,” which guarantees $400 million of commodities to the cooperatives and private voluntary organizations that sell them to fund programs. The CDRF money would help support non-emergency programs in areas where food crises are recurring.
While supporters are hopeful some of these reforms could combine to produce more flexible spending options, much depends on the fate of a farm bill that includes much more divisive programs — like food stamp funding and direct payments to farmers.
Ironically, a long-term farm bill solution could block the path to comprehensive food aid reform in the near future.
So if Congress reauthorizes U.S. food and agriculture programs for a full five years, an outcome that would seem like a beacon of compromise during a season of paralyzing gridlock on Capitol Hill, the agreement could cement current authorities in place and make it more difficult to revisit major reforms next year.
Reform supporters will have to hope for incremental change now, while continuing to amass the political capital to press for bigger changes down the road.
Michael Igoe is a Global Development Reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, he covers US foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.