US Food Aid Tragically Failing to Keep Up

October 05, 2015

With the situation in Syria deteriorating every day, and conflict elsewhere displacing millions more from their homes and livelihoods, desperately needed food aid is falling short. The World Food Program announced last month it would be forced to cut the number of Syrian refugees it will be able to help from 2.1 million to 1.4 million and to significantly reduce the size of the benefit due to insufficient funding. As a result, refugees in Jordan will have to survive on just $14 per person per month. Yet even with needs rising so sharply, US food aid programs remain stuck in a time warp that constrains the country’s ability to respond. Perhaps that will finally change. The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing this week on the “desperate need to do better” with food aid. And the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee continues to voice his commitment to advancing strong food aid reform legislation.

Donor fatigue and budget constraints are a problem worldwide, but reform would allow the United States to help millions more people with the same food aid budget. More than half a century after the US government began moving away from supply controls to prop up agricultural prices, the agencies in charge of food aid are still required to procure most food from US farmers and ship at least half on US-flagged ships. In an August report, the Government Accountability Office estimated the cargo preference requirement added more than $100 million to the cost of shipping food aid over three-plus years between 2011 and 2014. In practice that means the US helps fewer people.

According to the most recent International Food Assistance Report, rising commodity prices and transportation costs have reduced the volume of commodities the US Agency for International Development and the US Department of Agriculture have been able to deliver by more than half since 2006 (see the chart on p. 20 of the report here). If USAID and USDA had the flexibility to provide cash or vouchers, or to purchase food locally, the agencies could provide more assistance and ensure it reaches people in need a whole lot faster. That change would be indiscernible to the vast majority of US farmers since the 1.4 million tons of food aid delivered in 2013 was just 0.3 percent of US production of corn, wheat, and soybeans.

Humanitarian needs are rising while most donor budgets are not, raising the stakes for food aid reform. Beyond just food aid, a high-level panel chaired by my colleague Owen Barder released a report on how and why donors should increase their use of cash transfers for humanitarian relief programs in general. Owen explains the benefits, which go well beyond increased efficiency, here. President Obama, like President Bush before him, and congressional leaders, including Representatives Royce (R-CA) and Engel (D-NY) and Senators Corker (R-TN) and Coons (D-DE), have been pushing for food aid reform for several years. Now is the time. 


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.