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US Food Aid: Time to get it right

Sophia Murphy and Kathy McAfee

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)

July 2005

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Hunger is not inevitable. Malnutrition is not a consequence of food scarcity, but a result of the way economies are organized and of political choices to address—or ignore—the causes of hunger. In the 21st century, we have the means to defeat hunger: we grow enough food, we know enough about redistributive economics, we have the political tools to ensure inclusive decision-making and we can afford to provide the basic needs that protect every person’s entitlement to an adequate, nutritious diet. It is important to assert this fact, because so many food-related interventions seem premised on the assumption that hunger is an eternal fact, and therefore charity to assuage its most pernicious effects will always be necessary. This clouds our thinking. We have the knowledge and the tools to address the root causes of hunger, if we act strategically and empower communities facing hunger and countries with food deficits to feed themselves again.

We can increase the likelihood that 10 years from now, we will have reached the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger. We can also ensure that 20 years from now, aid agencies will not be feeding yet another hungry generation. We can foster sound food and development policies to help establish independent and self-reliant countries and communities where today there is desperate need and dependence.

This paper takes a critical look at food aid, particularly U.S. food aid. We tread carefully: even poorly designed and badly managed food aid saves lives, at least in the short term. Food aid levels have fallen dramatically in recent years, while need has increased. It is incumbent on us to be cautious in criticizing the existing, flawed food aid system because in the current U.S. political climate, it will be easier to cut overseas aid, in whatever form, than to generate additional resources to meet the urgent needs of the hundreds of millions who cannot now secure enough food to survive.

Nonetheless, much U.S. food aid, especially non-emergency food aid, is not nearly as effective as it could be. And some of it, particularly program aid, is simply unacceptable. U.S. in-kind food aid—the transfer of food grown in the U.S. for distribution or sale abroad that makes up the bulk of U.S. food aid—is a grossly inefficient resource transfer. Food aid analysts Chris Barrett and Dan Maxwell estimate that it costs more than two dollars of taxpayer money to generate one dollar of distributed food procured as in-kind food aid.1 In the name of the poor overseas, very large sums of money are now paid to prop up U.S. shipping firms and to buy food at higher than market prices from U.S. based food processors and other agribusinesses. Meanwhile, U.S. private voluntary organizations (PVOs) generate millions of dollars of revenue for their operating costs and for development aid by selling U.S. commodities in local markets in developing countries.

Fortunately, there are practical ways to improve food aid, including increasing the share of distributed food that is purchased in or near regions of hunger, and channeling food aid through experienced and reputable international agencies. Other countries have already shifted their food aid program in this direction, although most still need to make further reforms.

But the U.S. lobby advocating the status quo is organized and well-entrenched. It will take an equally strong and clear articulation of the problems in the existing system to bring about the needed changes. The U.S. must continue to provide generous assistance to fight hunger, including through food aid when appropriate. But food aid must be freed from the ties to a relatively small number of U.S. interests that make today’s food aid a domestic boondoggle. It is mistaken to believe food aid helps U.S. farmers. The U.S. must end self-interested and politicized forms of food aid.

A food aid program that makes a real contribution to development must have a two-fold objective: to meet emergency needs, preventing deaths today, and to help build sustainable and self-reliant food systems across the world for tomorrow. The sums of money involved need be no greater, but the results promise to be far better than those we have now.

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