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For more than 60 years, United States food aid programs have played a crucial role in saving and improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. With a record number of refugees and displaced persons, the need for continued US involvement and food aid leadership is stronger than ever. Relative to the reformed food assistance programs operated by other countries and nongovernmental organizations, the costs of US food aid are excessive, delivery of assistance is slow, and the programs have not kept pace with global emergency needs. The 2014 Farm Bill continued a pattern of slow progress in relaxing the constraints that impede the effectiveness of the increasingly limited international food aid programs. As Congress prepares for the 2018 Farm Bill, three main opportunities still exist to further advance program efficiency and impact: (1) relaxing cargo preference requirements on shipments of agricultural commodities procured in the US for food aid purposes, (2) expanding access to cash-based instruments rather than commodities so that programs need not rely solely on food delivery to targeted beneficiaries, and (3) relaxing procurement requirements that compel commodity purchase in the US.
Food aid is a scarce but important resource. The United States is, by far, the world’s largest food aid donor. In recent years, it has contributed more than 40 percent of the global food aid that helps feed the hungry.1
For more than 60 years, United States food aid programs have helped save or improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The size and design of these programs matter to intended recipient populations. The farm bill shapes the design of the largest of these programs, so that legislation matters fundamentally for the scope and efficiency of global food assistance programming.
Since 2014, total US government (USG) spending on international food assistance (IFA) has averaged roughly $2.4 billion a year.2 Nonetheless, in inflation-adjusted terms, annual average expenditures on USG IFA programs authorized through the regular farm bill3 process fell by 76 percent from the 1960s to 2010–14.4 However, the global need for aid continues to be substantial. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that roughly 800 million people are undernourished—and billions more suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.
Simple arithmetic indicates that USG IFA expenditures are woefully insufficient to significantly reduce global food insecurity in aggregate terms. These limited resources need to be targeted strategically to obtain the largest effects on hunger and malnutrition. The biggest impacts come from relief operations in response to conflict and natural disasters, which occur frequently and annually cost an estimated 42 million human life years, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.5
The number of refugees and displaced persons worldwide is now the highest on record. And for the first time ever, in 2017 the United Nations declared four nations—Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen—in famine or near-famine conditions and proclaimed it “the largest humanitarian crisis” since the UN’s creation in 1945. Yet, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest operational food assistance agency, is chronically underfunded relative to the emergency needs it is charged with addressing. Thus, in recent years, WFP has often had to cut or reduce food rations provided to refugees in multiple countries.6
Over the past two decades, the USG has appropriately focused IFA increasingly on addressing humanitarian emergencies and child nutrition, where the impacts are greatest.7 The statutory justification for IFA was narrowed in the 2008 Farm Bill, focusing more tightly on humanitarian response and abandoning the surplus disposal and trade promotion objectives that defined US food aid for much of the second half of the 20th century.
Until 1990, a majority of IFA consisted of shipments under Title I of Public Law 480, which delivered food commodities to foreign governments under concessional lending arrangements to support nonemergency programs. Since 2000, however, shipments under Title I have been negligible (less than 5 percent of total USG aid), and the program has not received new funding since fiscal year 2006.8
Title II of Public Law 480 shipments are provided as outright grants of US-sourced commodities to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and multilateral organizations (primarily WFP) to support both emergency and longer-term development programs. Historically, Title II programming accounted for approximately one-third of total USG food aid shipments.9 Title II’s share increased to more than three-quarters of US food aid shipments between 2000 and 2010 and has remained at or above two-thirds in recent years.
At the same time, the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Emergency Food Security Program (EFSP)—a cash-based program funded through a different appropriations process unconnected to the farm bill—has expanded dramatically to offer food assistance in forms other than commodities procured in and shipped from the US.10
The proposed 2018 Farm Bill offers an opportunity to reinforce the positive changes that have enhanced the humanitarian impact of ever-scarcer resources for USG IFA in recent years. These opportunities can be informed by a growing body of research on food aid that is extraordinarily clear in its broad conclusions about how to stretch IFA budgets to reach more people. Current statutory restrictions imposed on US international food aid programs waste taxpayer money at great human cost. For example, Alex Nikulkov et al. estimate that eliminating major constraints on US food aid policy, including cargo preference and domestic procurement requirements, could reduce child mortality in northern Kenya by 16 percent during severe drought episodes.11
Relative to the reformed food assistance programs operated by other countries and NGOs, the costs of US food aid are excessive, delivery of assistance is slow, and the programs have not kept pace with global emergency needs. And there is no measurable evidence that American agriculture, maritime employment, or military readiness benefits in any appreciable way from these statutory restrictions. No debate remains among serious scholars who have studied the issue: Significant US food aid reform is long overdue.12
The 2014 Farm Bill continued a pattern of slow progress in relaxing the constraints that impede the effectiveness of the USG’s increasingly limited IFA programs. Three main opportunities still exist to further advance program efficiency and impact: (1) relaxing cargo preference requirements on shipments of agricultural commodities procured in the US for food aid purposes, (2) expanding access to cash-based instruments rather than commodities so that programs need not rely solely on food delivery to targeted beneficiaries, and (3) relaxing procurement requirements that compel commodity purchase in the US.
We focus on those three areas in the discussion that follows. Meanwhile, the core funding for IFA is under continued threat. In March 2017, the Trump administration’s first budget proposed steep cuts, including completely eliminating the McGovern–Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. This suggests that the challenges facing IFA are not solely structural reform in the farm bill authorization process but also preservation in the appropriations process. One of the lessons from the 2014 Farm Bill was that Congress might not fund structural improvements ushered in with the farm bill, sometimes making apparent gains illusory.
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