WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently visited a Ugandan refugee camp where many have escaped famine and conflict in South Sudan. In the past, Corker proposed reform for the U.S. food aid system, which provides famine relief. In light of current humanitarian crises, Corker is presenting the argument for food aid reform to the Foreign Aid Relations Committee once again.
Senator Corker believes that with simple reforms to the USAID food aid system, the U.S. could feed more people without spending any more tax dollars. Here are five reasons why Americans should be in favor of food aid reform:
- According to current food aid law, all food sent must be purchased in the U.S. Getting food to an area of disaster is logically going to take longer than if the food was bought near the site of the disaster. Food aid is generally intended for people who are near death from starvation. By shipping food from the U.S., it can take four to six months to arrive at its destination, averaging 11-14 weeks longer than had it been purchased locally. When people are on the brink of starvation, delays cost lives.
- When food aid first started, American farmers had excess product, so shipping the surplus helped increase demand and stabilize the farming economy. By the 1950s, food sent as aid accounted for 30 percent of all agriculture exports. Now, just one percent of farming exports are exported as aid; so, buying food outside the U.S. should not hurt the farming industry.
- Currently, half of the U.S. food aid must be shipped on American-flagged vessels. In the past, the idea was to support American enterprises by using American ships. Yet, most American-flagged ships are actually owned by foreign companies, defeating the original logic. Using these ships cost more in transportation than using other foreign ships. More than 51 percent of food aid is being spent on transportation as a result. The more money spent on shipping, the less is spent feeding those in need.
- Giving vouchers and debit cards to those in need would be an efficient way to let people buy the relief they need. There is a line of logic that impoverished people in emergencies will not spend their money wisely. Studies do not support this. In fact, in-kind donations (like food) have sometimes been re-sold or tossed by the beneficiaries. Aid in the form of a debit card allows those in crises to buy food if needed, however, it also allows them to buy clothing and shelter. This form of food aid reform is not always appropriate in weaker markets. Although, it does have many advantages including low transaction costs and easy tracking.
- Food aid reform can do a lot with very little. In 2013, 36 million tons of food was purchased by the U.S. for aid relief. This went to 56 countries and fed 46.2 million people. All this only cost the U.S. 0.05 percent of its federal budget. With reform, 17.1 million more people can be fed 14 weeks faster on the same budget.
Food aid reform is the right thing to do. The United Nations believes the world is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII. With the current famine in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, 20 million people may starve. As Senator Corker told the Associated Press, “Without U.S. leadership, these people would have no hope.” If U.S. food aid reform can feed 17.1 million more people without increasing spending, why would we not do it?
– Mary Katherine Crowley