Secretary of State John Kerry and US Agency for International Development Administrator Raj Shah met separately this week with the heads of several United Nations and other international humanitarian and relief agencies, including the World Food Program, about the situation in Syria. Almost certainly food aid was on the agenda and perhaps there was discussion of what more the United States can do to help, given the legislative constraints requiring that US food aid be mostly in-kind.
When the Obama administration proposed food aid reform earlier this year, USAID cited Syria as the type of “complex emergency” where it is difficult to deliver in-kind food aid and where increased flexibility to use cash or vouchers to provide food aid is desperately needed. A few years ago, USAID created the Emergency Food Security Program and allocated $300 million annually for cash-based emergency assistance. But, as Blake Selzer from CARE noted last month, that money was gone long before the end of the fiscal year even as needs in Syria and other complex emergencies continue to increase.
The administration’s reform proposal was incorporated (mostly) in an amendment to the House farm bill proposed by Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY). The amendment, number 55 in this list, would have untied 45 percent of emergency food aid and made monetization of a portion of nonemergency food aid discretionary rather than mandatory. While the amendment was defeated, the vote was closer than expected—and closer than on the farm bill as a whole—and support for it was bipartisan, raising hopes that reform may not be dead. Oxfam America’s Gawain Kripke has a nice analysis of the vote here.
Clearly the need for food aid reform—to save money, time, and lives—is as urgent as ever and, reportedly, the administration is not giving up. Maybe modest reform is all that is possible this year, but, I hope the administration will see the bipartisan support for the Royce-Engel amendment as a signal to keep working with Republicans and Democrats in Congress for at least the half-loaf of reform they proposed this year. If the administration—and USAID—can get out ahead of the next iteration of food aid reform proposals and work closely with their allies on and around Capitol Hill, they might be able to set their sights even higher next year.