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Andrew Natsios, the Administrator of USAID, put the politics of US food aid back on the agenda when he proposed converting a quarter of the food aid budget to cash instead of directly procuring commodities in the US. For 50 years, the farm bloc, large multinational food processors, the US shipping industry, and charitable organizations engaged in relief and development activities in poor countries have supported generous funding for America’s food aid program. All of the food provided through this program was grown in the US, processed by US firms, shipped on US bottoms, and distributed through US-based agencies and organizations. Hungry people got fed, farmers got paid, and all the intermediaries did well by doing good. Sounds like a good political deal.

Of course, US taxpayers lost. Such US-based food aid usually costs 2-3 times as much as sourcing it locally. Farmers and traders in the recipient countries lost, as supplies from food aid depressed local prices. No sustainable poverty reduction there.
The Natsios proposal met a firestorm of opposition, including from groups he thought would be friendly to the idea. Celia Dugger in the NYT article Poverty Memo; African Food for Africa's Starving Is Roadblocked in Congress notes...

“the proposal was little noticed by the general public, it did not escape the attention of groups representing the so-called Iron Triangle, who argued that cash used to buy food was more likely to be misused or stolen than were in-kind food donations. They maintained that the administration's proposal should not come at the expense of a program ''upon which American producers, processors and shipping companies rely,'' as a statement from an ad hoc coalition of 17 companies and associations put it.
The Coalition for Food Aid, which represents 16 nonprofit groups, also opposed it. While supporting the idea of buying food in poor countries, said Ellen Levinson, the coalition's lobbyist, its members favored a more limited pilot program paid for only with additional appropriations, not money from the agency's core budget.”

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman in the Wall Street Journal have also revealed the political foundations of US food aid. Both stories suggest that there will be little give from this coalition. This reform makes a lot of sense. Is there any way to move it forward, or is it stuck, like social security, in a political black hole?


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.