Feed the Future Survives for Another Day

Feed the Future is the Obama Administration’s answer to cyclical global hunger crises.

Rather than provide food in response to droughts or work around governments, Feed the Future represent’s a commitment to working with governments.

Increasing Food Security through Feed the Future – Grain processors in Ethiopia
Grain processors in Ethiopia
Morgana Wingard/USAID

While the program took a few years to get off the ground, and is probably not all that well known to the public, it is a favorite of USAID Administrator Raj Shah – and also a go-to program budget hawks now want to cut back.

Agriculture programs have been losing federal funding over the past few years already. The House Budget Committee recommended to cut Feed the Future entirely last year. Budget negotiations come for Fiscal Year 2014 (FY14) come in the wake of sequestration. The House Budget Committee’s proposal involves a 7% cut to the International Affairs budget.

Yet Feed the Future has managed to survive.

So, while the Republican controlled house tries to rectify a budget with the Democrat controlled Senate that wants to add 9% more to the International Affairs budget, Feed the Future appears to have won a second life.  But the uncertainty that looms over the budge cut discussion may cause harm.

“When we aren’t clear about our intentions, it creates uncertainty,” explained Gregory Adams, Director of Aid Effectiveness for Oxfam America to Humanosphere. “If you are delaying your annoucement of plans, you leave farmers in the lurch. Many will miss a planting season because they do not know when aid will arrive.”

The House budget committee, led by policy superstar Paul Ryan, called for the complete elimination of Feed the Future in its FY13 budget recommendations.

While addressing the issues of poverty and malnutrition around the globe is important, the U.S. Government’s fiscal condition does not permit the expansion of U.S. foreign assistance initiatives, especially ones that overlap with existing programs.

They point to Food for Peace and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program as the two existing food aid programs within USAID. Connie Veillette of the think tank the Center for Global Development called the recommendation “the oddest and most counter productive recommendation’ of a series of proposals that are ‘ill-advised.’

She points out that the two programs identified by the committee’s recommendation are both focused on food relief and have shown to be inefficient.

It also boggles the mind that the Budget Committee would emphasize programs that are widely recognized as having serious efficiency problems.  As John Norris and I have previously written, our food aid programs are some of the most inefficient in government.  Because U.S. law requires that food be purchased in the United States and shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels, the transaction costs eat away at roughly one-third of the funding.  These laws also apply to assistance that is monetized.

On the other hand, Feed the Future tackles the problem of food security through investments in improving agricultural productivity. That makes it a cost effective program, argues Veillette. She was not alone in her criticism of the decision.

“The world’s smallholder farmers, ironically, are some of the main recipients of food aid.  Because of the neglect of agricultural development efforts over the past three decades, these farmers struggle mightily to feed their families,” wrote author and Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council, Roger Thurow, in response to the proposal.

Shah described one of the successes of Feed the Future during his testimony to the House Foreign Relations Committee in March 2012.

“In Kenya, Feed the Future has helped over 90,000 dairy farmers, more than a third of whom are women, increase their total income by a combined $14 million last year,” he said.

Feed the Future was borne out of the US response to global food price increases during the end of the Bush administration in 2007 and 2008. In July 2009, President Obama made a $3.5 billion pledge at the G8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy to undertake a new approach towards food security. That pledge in turn saw the inauguration of Feed the Future in May 2010.

The program builds off the outcome document of the L’Aquila Summit, the Rome Principles, that called for the development of programs that worked with individual countries to determine their own strategies and investment plans to accomplish food security. The programs would help to avoid large scale hunger crises like the one that followed in mid-2011 in the wake of the drought in the Horn of Africa.

11.5 million people were in need of emergency assistance, but countries that had already implemented food security programs like Ethiopia managed to deal with the drought relatively well. Southern Somalia failed poorly and a famine was declared in the middle of July.

“The President’s Feed the Future initiative is designed to partner with countries like Ethiopia and Kenya to develop their own agricultural industries, helping them break free of the need for humanitarian food aid. Only through a long-term sustained investment in their own food security can these countries escape the vicious cycle of famine of food aid we’ve once again witnessed,” wrote Shah in a blog post at the time.

The Administrator began talking about the need to build resilience in the region so that individuals can handle the stress of drought. In a phone conversation this past fall, Shah singled out Feed the Future as one of his favorite programs.

“The goal is implement programs that reduce the number of people who need humanitarian aid when bad things happen,” said Shah at the time.

He stressed taking action and implementing programs that provide results oriented development assistance. He spoke proudly of the smaller programs like Feed the Future and the Child Survival Call to Action saying that they are ‘absolute priorities.’ It is a sentiment that alings with the remarks from Thurow and Veillette.

Feed the Future reached over 6.5 million households through direct programs and supported nearly 9 million children with nutrition programs in 2011 alone. Early data on 2012 showed that Feed the Future expaned by reaching nearly 13 million households.

An analysis of US global agriclutural development programs carried out by the Chicago Council showed positive results when looking at the work of US agencies in Ghana, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. All three were determined to be focus countries for Feed the Future. Taking a whole-of-government approach heledp to revitalize US agriculture policy, said the report.

“This substantial revival of U.S. policy represents a dramatic improvement compared to the decades of neglect that prevailed before 2009.”

It calls for further support of agriculture investment as a way to ward off future disasters. The elimination of Feed the Future represents a lost opportunity, say its defenders.

“Morally.  Eliminating Feed the Future would indicate that the U.S. is abdicating its leadership role in a great humanitarian challenge, a role it once relished in the times of the Marshall Plan and the Green Revolution,” argued Thurow.

It is alive for now and looks to live for at least one more year, but will it last?

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.