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This year's decline in food aid [due to high food prices] follows a period when the sharply escalating costs of shipping American-grown food aid to Africa and Asia already reduced the tonnage supplied. The United States Government Accountability Office reported this year that the number of people being fed by American food aid had declined to 70 million in 2006 from 105 million in 2002, mainly because of rising transportation and logistical costs.
U.S spending on food aid doesn’t go as far as it used to. The ethanol and Chinese economic booms have caused commodity prices to soar; meanwhile; U.S. policy remains stubbornly rooted in the 1950s. Food aid began, in part, as a means of disposing of the surpluses the government accumulated when it was forced to buy up surplus crops to support farm prices. Though the government now pays billions of dollars in direct subsidies to farmers, instead, Congress still insists that the food aid budget be used to buy U.S. crops, which must be delivered to needy countries on U.S.-flagged ships. With prices for many agricultural commodities booming, the arguments for reforming U.S. food aid programs to ensure that limited dollars stretch as far as possible are stronger than ever. The Bush administration proposed putting $300 million from the food aid budget into a pilot program to buy food locally or regionally, so that more money goes to actually feeding hungry people. Some NGOs that benefited from receiving US food aid by reselling it to raise funds for development projects, have joined the chorusfor reform.
Yet the House-passed bill contains no provision allowing for local purchases and it is not yet clear what the Senate will do on this issue. With commodity prices so high, farmers receive little or no benefit from the small amount of food bought by the government for food aid programs. But the third leg of the iron triangle against reform is not budging so far. Emmy Simmons, who has worked with the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa on a project to reform food aid put it succinctly in the New York Times, article quoted above:
"[T]he shipping guys are hanging tough.... They're defending that little chunk of revenue. They aren't super concerned whether you feed less people."
Apparently, neither do the key players in the U.S. Congress and that's a shame.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.