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Food Aid Fight: World Vision battles Oxfam within the Iron Triangle

Editor’s note: Members of the humanitarian community say they just want to feed the hungry and do not wish to be characterized as fighting with each other over food aid.

Too bad. They are fighting with each other, over an effort to reform America’s long-standing approach to food aid – an approach that many experts agree is unequaled when it comes to being self-serving and wasteful. A look at two key players in the politics of fixing food aid.

Maybe you’ve heard of the nearly trillion-dollar U.S. Farm Bill.

News reports on this massive, quinquennial (every five years) piece of Congressional legislation often devolve into some inside-baseball rant over one particular item like farm subsidies or food stamps – or, conversely, seem as unwieldly and difficult to follow as a blimp in a tornado. That’s why most non-farmers or non-agribusiness types normally don’t pay much attention to this massive bill despite the fact that it affects every one of us. It’s about food, after all.

One of the many special interests embedded within the Farm Bill is international food aid. This is a $1.8 billion collection of programs with names like Food for Peace or Food for Progress nominally created by our country’s desire to feed the hungry and needy overseas. Nearly a billion people suffer from hunger worldwide and the U.S. is the world’s leading supplier of food aid.

Food aid is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contended issues in the frequently hotly contended Farm Bill.

Why? Because the Obama Administration has proposed some major changes to food aid aimed at purchasing some of the food overseas and closer to the hunger crisis du jour. This is the approach taken by other donor countries doing food aid and is widely regarded by experts as cheaper (a better buy for the taxpayers), more efficient and, if adopted by the U.S., capable of feeding 2-4 million more hungry people per year for the same amount of money.

Some experts say that’s a conservative estimate and estimate that Obama’s food aid reforms could feed 4-10 million more people for the same amount of money.

One of the simplest proposed fixes is to just stop buying food from ourselves and paying ourselves to ship it to American aid organizations who are also paid to distribute it to the poor and hungry. No-brainer?

“Our current system today is completely tied to purchasing US commodities,” said Danielle Mutone-Smith, with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Food for Peace Program. USAID wants to change the law so up to 45 percent of food aid can be purchased overseas. “We want to build more flexibility into the program so we can better respond to international crises and food shortages.”

Many (but not all) of those in the shipping and agri-business industries who benefit financially from the current system — which, by law, requires 100 percent of food for aid be purchased from American producers and shipped on American-flagged vessels — are opposed to the change. Shippers and farmers are two corners of what’s been dubbed the food aid ‘Iron Triangle.’ The other corner is the humanitarian and aid community, groups like Oxfam and World Vision.

You might think the humanitarian corner of the Iron Triangle would be in agreement, favoring this food aid reform proposal since it would end up feeding millions more hungry people for the same amount of money and is now common practice everywhere else in the world.

You would be wrong.

Robert Zachritz

Robert Zachritz

“The Obama Administration is proposing a giant leap forward but we think they could end up taking a giant leap backward,” said Rob Zachritz, chief of advocacy and government relations for World Vision, one of the planet’s biggest aid and relief organizations. Zachritz said World Vision supports the spirit and intent behind these efforts to reform food aid; they just don’t think it’s politically wise.

“We believe in the do-no-harm principle here,” he said. World Vision is not opposed to some level of ‘local procurement’ of food rather than shipping it all. But the Administration’s food aid reform proposal also involves shifting financial responsibily for much of food aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to USAID.

Zachritz contends this would put the entire food aid program at risk in this tight fiscal environment. Put simply, he explained, if the food aid program de-links from the political interests of agri-business the whole kitten kaboodle could go down the tube.

“They could totally lose the money,” Zachritz said. “If you move to this more effective system but lose political support, you’ll end up serving less people … I would compare this to trying to cross a ravine. The Administration wants to just make a great flying leap. We want to move more slowly and use a rope.”

That just sounds like a plan for slowly lowering yourself further down into a hole, said Eric Munoz, senior policy adviser at Oxfam America.

Eric Munoz

Eric Munoz

“Why are we assuming that the food aid budget is safe if we just stick with the status quo?” said Munoz. Foreign aid is already at risk politically, he said, and the Administration’s proposal will feed millions more for less money. “The humanitarian community should be working to change the political calculus … not be afraid to move forward just because we’re scared what might happen.”

World Vision isn’t alone in opposing the main tenets of the Obama Administration’s food aid reform proposal, just as Oxfam isn’t alone in supporting the proposal. CARE, Save the Children and Bread for the World are among those pushing for reform. International Relief & Development, Food for the Hungry and Planet Aid (Editor’s note: Not Catholic Relief Services, which was incorrectly included) with World Vision in opposing major reform.

Part of the reason for opposing reform may be this highly risk-averse political calculation. But what’s also at stake for some in the aid community is income.

Many humanitarian groups depend upon the current system for a significant amount of their revenue. Distributing food aid pays the bills for many organizations, as does the practice of ‘monetization.’ This is the name given to the practice of aid groups selling the shipped food locally (when not needed for an emergency) to pay for other aid and development projects. The Administration proposes to put an end to monetization since many see it as wasteful.

“We don’t agree with that,” said Zachritz. Ending monetization (which World Vision says is a small part of its nearly $3 billion annual budget, about $60 million) would reduce an aid organization’s ability to adapt and make use of surplus food aid to fund other programs and needs when there is no emergency.

“We’re concerned that emergencies will trump non-emergencies and these programs won’t get funding,” Zachritz said. World Vision and other like-minded NGOs opposed to the reforms that would allow local food purchasing and end monetization have formed a group called the Alliance for Global Food Security.

CARE used to depend upon monetization for a significant amount of its income, but has since abandoned it because it is so inefficient, said Blake Selzer, a lobbyist for CARE. Selzer said the aid and relief group lost something like $40 million in annual income — out of its total budget of $122 million at the time — when it ended monetization in 2009. “That was a significant hit,” he said, but it was the right thing to do.

“I have yet to hear a cogent policy argument in favor of the status quo,” said Selzer. “It’s politics, not policy.”

Most humanitarian organizations support the Administration’s proposal to reform food aid as good policy if the aim is to feed the most people. Andrew Natsios, former head of USAID under President George W. Bush, recently wrote a compelling op-ed in favor of the reforms, explaining how the current system hurt U.S. military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan. World Vision and other aid organizations that oppose reform are taking a minority position when it comes to the NGO corner of the Iron Triangle. World Vision says it is doing so not because it strongly favors the status quo but because trying to make a big change is too politically dicey.

Munoz and Selzer say this is too cynical and that the position of the aid community should be to rally the American people around this sensible piece of reform rather than accept a political compromise that, in effect, undermines the very purpose of food aid and translates into many millions more people going hungry.

“This is about how we should see ourselves in the world,” said Munoz.

But so far, mean politics appears to be winning over meaningful policy. The US Senate yesterday largely ignored the Obama Administration’s requests for food aid reform.

Food aid in Sudan

Food aid in Sudan

Flickr, UNEP


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.