US food aid: A tale of 2 shipments to the Philippines

A delivery of USAID emergency relief supplies in Tacloban. U.S. food aid. Washington has committed $10M for emergency food aid, while reformers push for more flexibility on food aid delivery. Photo by: Russell Galeti, USAID / BY-NC

The ongoing U.S. disaster response effort in the Philippines could have been much more more difficult, but for one unlikely break: Super Typhoon Haiyan struck at the beginning of a new fiscal year.

The most flexible spending account for U.S. food aid was just replenished after a long year of disaster response in Syria and elsewhere. Without it, U.S. Agency for International Development officials and partners could have been hamstrung by regulations that require them to purchase food commodities from U.S. producers and ship them overseas on U.S.-flagged vessels according to a USAID official who wished to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly.

Washington has so far committed $10 million for emergency food aid to the post-disaster Philippines. Of the total, $7.75 million has already been used by the U.N. World Food Program to buy 2,400 tons of rice currently being distributed to survivors throughout the archipelago.

The remaining $2.25 million was also used to buy food — 55 tons of high-calorie bars and another 1,100 tons of rice. But that rice, currently en route to the Philippines from a warehouse in Sri Lanka, is not expected to arrive until December 2.

Different spending accounts

The shipment delay — or quick response, depending on how you look at it — is the result of purchasing food from two different spending accounts USAID uses to acquire food for overseas emergencies.

The first purchase was drawn from the International Disaster Assistance account, which is administered by the agency’s Food for Peace office, and which allows USAID and its partners to buy food from local and regional markets near the sight of the food aid distribution effort, a helpful provision in a region of plentiful rice production.

The second purchase, however, was paid from the Title II account established by the Food for Peace Act and authorized in the U.S. Farm Bill. The agency still administers the money in that account, but it can only be used to buy food commodities that are produced and transported by U.S. farmers and shippers. In fact, the rice shipment would have been scheduled to arrive much later than December 2 had it not been strategically “prepositioned” in Sri Lanka in the event of a food security crisis.

This is why USAID has drawn down disproportionately from IDA, even though this account is much smaller than the pot of Title II money available for disaster response — $300 million in IDA versus almost $1.5 billion in Title II.

According to the official, the agency has chosen to spend much more out of a more flexible but quickly-depleting emergency fund to avoid the purchasing and shipping process required under the other account.

But since the IDA account is relatively small, officials must weigh spending now against the likelihood of future disasters that will require equally fast-acting and flexible food aid responses. For instance, last year U.S. response efforts to the crisis in Syria stretched the limits of IDA spending.

Impact on future food aid efforts

Luckily for the USAID-led food aid effort in the Philippines, that money was re-authorized on October 1.

“We’re at the beginning of the fiscal year. Were this August, at the end of the fiscal year, this would be a very different response,” noted the official.

Still, U.S. aid strategists have to be concerned about what a major expenditure at the beginning of the year will mean for future response flexibility.

The official added: “With an unexpected disaster like this, spending this money will have an impact on how much is available for the rest of the year.”

What that impact looks like depends in large part on whether Congress takes up food aid reform as part of the Farm Bill Conference ongoing this month. Reform packages have been floated by the Obama administration and with bipartisan support in the Senate, but the issue has failed to gain enough mainstream traction to overcome the small but powerful block of U.S. farmers and shippers who support the current system.

It would seem coincidental that a massive natural disaster struck the Philippines at the same time a debate over the best way for the U.S. to deliver humanitarian and emergency food aid has ascended Capitol Hill — but Filipinos have seen typhoons kill at least 1,000 people each of the last three years, and the food aid reform fight has been on and off the U.S. legislative agenda for an even longer time.

Reform supporters hope a Farm Bill agreement that grants more flexibility on food aid delivery to future response efforts could be a rare silver lining amid the tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.

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