By Eric Muňoz, senior agriculture policy advisor for Oxfam America
Right now across the Sahel more than 18 million people are teetering on the edge of hunger, struck for the second time in three years by drought that has all but eliminated harvests and exacerbated the precarious position many people living in poverty find themselves in. This crisis comes on the heels of another drought turned deadly, this one across the African continent and affecting, mainly, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Successive waves of food emergencies have stretched humanitarian capacity to the breaking point underscoring the need for strong tools to address crises.
Given budget pressures, a good place to start is to better use available resources. The US continues to lead global giving in food aid, one of the primary tools used to fight hunger. With a $2.3 billion budget in 2010, the United States delivered 2.5 million metric tons of food aid to communities around the world. These contributions amounted to roughly 50 percent of global food aid flows.
But the current food aid program is riddled with inefficiencies and regulations that reduce its overall efficiency and effectiveness. Buying and shipping food from the United States to points around the world is not always the most timely, economical or appropriate response but, because of these rules, it is how almost all of our food aid is given. As an analysis jointly conducted by Oxfam America and American Jewish World Service showed reducing waste in our food aid program, and moving to a more flexible approach including greater use of local and regional purchase could save up to $491 million per year, an amount that could feed 17 million additional people. All of this without increasing the US food aid budget by one cent.
Some of these reforms are being debated in Congress this week as the Senate votes on the Farm Bill. Last month, the Farm Bill passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee containing important reforms to food aid programs including:
- Permanently authorizing local and regional purchase of food aid at up to $40 million per year;
- Tightening rules governing how and when food aid is sold on markets in developing countries in order to reduce waste;
- Expanding cash resources aid groups can draw upon to implement comprehensive food and nutrition programs combining food aid with wrap-around services;
- Continuing support for efforts to improve the nutritional quality of food aid and test program approaches to maximize the impact of food distribution on target populations.
So will these reforms prevail? The debate taking place this week in the full Senate on the Farm Bill will be a key test. But of course Senate action on this issue will mean little if the House does not adopt similar reforms. So far, the path to finalizing a Farm Bill in the House before it expires on Sept. 30 remains far from clear.
While it seems common sense that proposals to reform food aid should be adopted, there are plenty of entrenched interests who would like to see the status quo remain, especially since the current rules and regulations are designed to pad the corporate profits of agribusiness traders and shipping firms at the expense of those in need. Of course if common sense ruled political debates, the food aid program would have been reformed long ago.
For more blogs from Eric Muňoz check out Oxfam America's Politics of Poverty Blog.