Last month we reported on the strange and disapointing bipartisan vote in the House against common-sense reforms to America’s foreign food aid program.
Washington state’s congressional delegation vote on the proposal was as strange and disappointing as any: Only two of the state’s 11 representatives voted for an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have allowed for greater flexibility in the system and increased local purchase of food in developing countries.
One of those who voted against the reforms was Democratic stalwart Jim McDermott, who represents a district north of Seattle. I caught up with Rep. McDermott recently and asked him to explain his vote.
“The question is the corruption and how the money gets taken away,” he said. “I wasn’t convinced by that amendment. It’s not that I think it’s a bad idea. It probably might work better to buy the crops over there, if you knew how you were going to do it.”
Many experts say that the current system of how the U.S. government does food aid is plenty corrupted – at least if you assume the goal is to feed the poor and hungry. The current system requires that we buy the food from American farmers and ship it on American-flagged vessels. No other country does food aid this way. It’s inefficient and blatantly self-serving.
“I’ve had too much experience to think that, let’s just shift to a new program, and somehow it’ll all be better. I don’t buy that,” McDermott said, pointing to the millions of dollars lost to corruption in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet all other donor nations manage to do this in a non-corrupt way. Other nations have recognized that it is faster, and economically wiser for both taxpayers and the local recipients, to try to purchase food aid supplies closer to any particular hunger crisis. If Somalia is hungry, buy food from Kenyan farmers – cheaper, faster and it helps Kenyan farmers.
So, would the proposed reform (to allow less than half of all food aid to be purchased overseas) have opened the door to corruption of food aid?
No, says David McKee, a grain industry consultant who resides in McDermott’s district:
Congressman McDermott’s argument is false. On the contrary, switching away from in kind donation of US commodities in kind would enable a reduction of corruption and waste in the food safety net systems of many countries receiving US assistance. In addition, cash donations would make it possible to deliver the same quantities of food for about half the taxpayer dollars now being spent. US food aid is not provided directly to foreign governments.
McKee pointed out that food aid would still be distributed by USAID and its partner NGOS, all of whom backed the reforms. “In Ethiopia from first hand experience, I know that much of the wheat is either pilfered in transit or illegally sold at below market prices by the beneficiaries to traders who then resell it to wheat flour mills,” McKee continued. “US agribusiness companies have backed away from investment in milling and the wheat value chain in Ethiopia precisely because of the amount of illegally traded donated US wheat in the market.”
Unions from the agriculture and shipping industries, some of whom have supported McDermott’s campaigns, led much of the opposition to the food aid reforms. McDermott denied that they had any influence on his decision.
Here’s hoping the next time food aid reforms come up for a vote, we can dispense with the specious arguments against it.