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Natsios Vows to Pursue Food Aid Reform

December 12, 2005

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December 09, 2005

Natsios Vows to Pursue Food Aid Reform

Posted by Lawrence MacDonald at 04:05 PM

Andrew Natsios vowed Friday to continue to push for reform of U.S. food aid after his departure as the head of USAID next month. In a keynote address to some 200 relief and development specialists at a CGD event (Can Food Aid Be a More Effective Development Tool?), he described reform of U.S. food aid as a "moral issue" that could save thousands of lives every year. "If people think this issue is going away they are wrong," he said.

Natsios’s proposal to make $300 million worth of U.S. food aid (about 25% of the budget) available as cash that could be used to buy food in developing countries met a firestorm of opposition (see Politics of Food Aid ). He said on Friday that influential senators initially told him they would support such a change, which would make U.S. aid more flexible and efficient, but that they backed down under pressure from groups that support the status quo, including NGOs.

The requirement that U.S. food aid be grown in the U.S. and shipped in U.S. vessels means it often arrives too late to be helpful, he said. And sometimes it works against development. In Afghanistan, he said, U.S. food shipments undercut the market for locally grown wheat on the eve of a bumper harvest that resulted from new seeds introduced with U.S. assistance. Wheat rotted in the fields and the next year farmers turned to opium poppies instead, he said.

Agricultural lobbies, the U.S. shipping industry, and some humanitarian NGOs have opposed reform. Other NGOs, including Oxfam, have supported it.

Natsios announced last week that he was retiring from USAID to become a professor of diplomacy and an advisor on international development at Georgetown University.

On Friday he said it was important for relief and development workers to have access to both cash for local food purchases and to food aid in kind, so that they could use the most appropriate tool depending upon the circumstances.

The agriculture bill that eventually passed included a line scolding the administration for suggesting reform: "The conferees further admonish the Executive Branch to refrain from proposals which place at risk a carefully balanced coalition of interests which have served the interests of international food assistance programs well for more than fifty years," it said (hat tip to Gawain Kripke at Oxfam's Make Trade Fair Campaign)

Natsios vowed Friday that the proposed reform nonetheless would be included in the 2007 budget. Stay tuned!

This article originally appeared in Global Development: Views from the Center