The Obama administration’s FY14 budget request included a food aid reform proposal that the administration estimated would allow US food aid to reach an addition 2-4 million people per year—for roughly what the United States spends now. My colleagues Kim Elliott and Will McKitterick have a new brief out that argues this is a conservative estimate. Their calculations suggest that the reforms would help at least 4 million more people, and maybe as many as 10 million for the same amount of money as under the current inefficient system.
As Kim previously put it, the administration’s proposal is welcome but still only “half a loaf” of reform. The proposal would relax in-kind and cargo preference requirements on emergency aid, shift $250 million of non-emergency food aid into a new account without in-kind restrictions, and eliminate monetization. A good start. And as budgets shrink but need for and cost of food aid grows, any reform that allows US food aid to reach more people for the same amount of money is not to be ignored. As Kim and Will point out, the number of direct recipients of US food aid dropped from 74 million in FY06 to an average of 30 million per year over FY07-10, despite more people in need.
But even the administration’s half reform appears to be too much in the face of strong pushback from maritime interests and some in the farm industry (Cargill is a notable exception in favor of reform, as is the National Farmers Union). And, perhaps most crucially, Agriculture authorizers and appropriators want to prevent this billion dollar turf from moving out of their jurisdiction and to Foreign Affairs and State and Foreign Ops. This turf protection is more than self-interest—there is the possibility that moving these accounts to State and Foreign Ops makes these funds far easier to cut than if they remain under Agriculture’s accounts. Worrisome potential evidence of this line of argument can be found in the House’s recent 302(b) allocations, which would target the 150 Account with a cap of $34.1 billion for non-Overseas Contingency Operations funding, almost 14 percent below current, post-sequestration levels. Agriculture accounts, on the other hand, would not see significant cuts if the House’s caps were to stand.
The farm bills moving through both the House and Senate keep the food aid programs under Agriculture Committee jurisdiction. The Senate could provide a few crumbs of reform by making permanent a local-regional procurement pilot program and a Coons-Johanns amendment agreed to by voice vote on June 3 would increase the amount of money available in FY14-18 for that program to $60 million from $40 million.
So, is food aid reform dead?
I'm not ready to call it quits just yet. Chairman Royce (R-CA) and Congresswoman Bass (D-CA) have an ambitious reform bill out, which would end the in-kind and cargo preference requirements and eliminate monetization for most US food aid. These reforms would more fully target the inefficiencies of the current system than the Administration’s proposal and allow US food aid to get to more people—and faster.
A champion for big reform in the Senate has yet to emerge but the optimist in me says that this kind of smart reform that eliminates enormous waste in the US system is just calling out for a bipartisan push, even if not in the very near term.