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The Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa held an event on Capitol Hill on Friday to launch an excellent report by Stephanie Mercier, a former Senate Ag Committee staffer. I had the pleasure of serving as a discussant.  Though the report title focuses on food aid and the next farm bill, the report also covers the evolution of U.S. food aid and the modest but important improvements that were made in the 2008 farm bill. One important change: increased flexibility to pre-position food stocks in Africa and other crisis-prone areas, reducing the time needed to get food to the hungry from as much as six months to as little as two weeks.

John Brooks from the Food for Peace Office at USAID was also on the panel and discussed the new Emergency Food Security Program, which uses funds appropriated for international disaster assistance to buy food locally or regionally, or to provide cash or vouchers to the poor, in situations where high prices, not food availability, are the problem. That’s an important innovation, given the risk that extreme weather events due to climate change are already increasing the volatility of food prices.

But in-kind food aid remains the dominant tool in U.S. policy, so reforms there matter. Pre-positioning food stocks has some important advantages besides saving time: it can lower program costs for the food itself (by minimizing purchases during food price spikes) and shipping (by avoiding bunching of shipments). Mostly, however, it’s crazy that the Congress still requires that U.S. food aid be bought here and transported around the world on US-flagged ships.

In a recent CGD paper, Connie Veillette and John Norris from the Center for American Progress estimated that the United States could save as much as $500 million per year and improve food aid effectiveness with three simple steps: remove remaining restrictions on local and regional purchase of food; eliminate cargo preference requirements for food aid shipments; and end so-called monetization, under which NGOs sell some food aid on local markets to raise money for development projects.

For me the more interesting part of Stephanie’s paper was the discussion of the rise of food security as a development issue, the creation of President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, and the need for coordination between the two. The Food for Peace program has long had two parts—emergency food aid in humanitarian crises, and food aid for development. The final question that I posed at the Partnership event was:  Since we now have an initiative focused on food security and agriculture as part of development, is there still a role for non-emergency food aid as a tool of development?

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.