Senators say US needs to reform food aid to save lives amid historic hunger crisis

U.S. Senator Chris Coons at a WFP food distribution point for South Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda. He was joined by fellow Senator Bob Corker to observe the U.S. response to the emerging hunger crisis in the region. (Credit: Senator Chris Coons Facebook page)

The U.S. government’s approach to delivering food aid overseas is endangering lives, say a bipartisan pair of senators who recently returned from a visit to a refugee camp in Uganda.

“It’s taken in some cases six months for [food aid] to actually get here,” Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, said following a visit to a camp hosting those fleeing violence in South Sudan. “We have people coming over the border (from South Sudan). They need food. We can actually buy the food cheaper, use our taxpayer dollars cheaper.”

Corker was accompanied by Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, on the fact-finding trip during this time when as many as 20 million people face famine. As many humanitarian organizations have argued for years, the American approach to delivering food aid – which requires most food aid to be produced by U.S. farmers and shipped by U.S. transportation firms – is intolerably inefficient, and deadly in consequence.

Corker and Coons toured Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee camp, which is home to more than 270,000 South Sudanese refugees. Thousands of refugees are crossing the border daily to flee violence and hunger gripping the world’s youngest country. Famine was declared in parts of South Sudan in February and humanitarian groups are scrambling to respond despite not having enough money.

South Sudan is just one of four countries facing massive famines right now. The U.N. warned that the world is potentially facing the worst hunger crisis since World War II and has requested more than $4 billion in funding from rich countries. It has not worked out so far. Only about one-eighth of the funding needed is available and some countries like the U.S. are looking to even make cuts to foreign aid spending.

Food aid represents a significant chunk of the White House’s proposed cuts to the State Department. At a time when more aid is needed, the U.S. under President Donald Trump is mostly looking inward. Coons and Corker are among those in Congress who are defending the aid budget – which represents less than one percent of the federal budget. The senators also say the country’s inefficient food aid system is making a bad global crisis much worse.

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Food aid reform is a common bond between the two. They made a series of legislative attempts to loosen up rules on where food is sourced and how it is shipped to get to people in need. They introduced the Food for Peace Reform Act, a bill that would help U.S. food aid reach an additional 12 million people each year.

Current rules stipulate that food aid distributed by the Food for Peace program must be produced by U.S. farmers and shipped by U.S. flagged ships. It is slow and expensive. More than half of the $17.9 billion spent on food aid between 2003 and 2012 went to getting the food to people in need. To make matters worse, the average shipment took more than 2 months to get to its destination.

The waste reduces the impact of U.S. food aid, say reform proponents. Buying food locally can both help developing countries and ensure that it arrives as soon as a crisis emerges, they argue. The bill proposed by Coons and Corker lifted the restrictions.

A successful lobbying effort by some aid groups, the farm industry and the maritime industry defeated the bill in 2014 and again in 2015. A small victory came in the form of changes to Section 202(e), which covers administrative costs for the Food for Peace Act. New rules expanded the uses for the money and its overall budget. Doing so allowed the U.S. to begin providing cash transfers, food vouchers and locally or regionally procured food.

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The comments by Coons and Corker are an attempt to revive reform efforts. A report by the Government Accountability Office last week adds a new obstacle. It reviewed the new 202(e) programs finding that few oversight and accountability measures exist. Creating a loophole instead of reforming the entire food aid program may cause unintended problems and harm reform efforts. Some members of Congress expressed doubts about food aid reform.

“I was surprised last Congress when some called for additional Title II flexibility as part of our hearing series on international food aid, even though there had been no substantive review of the flexibility already in place,” said Congressman Mike Conway, chair of the agriculture committee, in statement responding to the report. “Not only does this report solidify my concerns about USAID’s ability to monitor the use of cash and vouchers overseas, but also that demands for even more flexibility are premature.”

Despite the disagreements about food aid reform, there is broad support for the program and U.S. foreign aid spending in the halls of Congress. Politicians from both parties are criticizing the Trump administration’s proposed cuts, arguing they are not in the interest of the U.S. Former President George W. Bush, who launched the bipartisan President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, joined the chorus of critics last week

“The idea of turning our back on a pandemic that would’ve wiped out an entire generation of people, I don’t think is in the spirit of the United States,” he said to NPR.

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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.