What’s the Emergency Food Security Program?

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SEATTLE, Washington —  The COVID-19 pandemic is causing ripples across the global economy. One such ripple is disrupting food availability and transportation. In 2019, before the shock of COVID-19, around 820 million people suffered from hunger, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Following the pandemic, the United Nations’ World Food Programme identified 36 countries to be most vulnerable to supply shocks, meaning over 130 million people can fall into “severe hunger.” Even before the virus, achieving the U.N.’s goal of ending world hunger by 2030 would have required additional funding, resources and planning. Now, the progress toward ending global hunger stagnates as more people find themselves pushed to the brink of severe hunger. Thankfully, the Emergency Food Security Program is providing some of those additional resources.

How it Works 

Instead of solely sending in-kind aid, the USAID’s Emergency Food Security Program (EFSP) uses a flexible, cash-based approach. EFSP can provide people in need in affected countries with direct cash, food vouchers, and nutritional food bought from within the affected country through Local and Regional Procurement (LRP). LRP allows aid agencies such as USAID to provide nutritional food in areas near a country’s disaster zone during an emergency; local procurement is food bought in the affected country while regional procurement is food bought from the same continent.

This purchasing mechanism makes up the majority of aid sent through the EFSP. Because of these flexible processes, the EFSP fed over 39 million people in 50 countries in 2019. In 2019, the EFSP disbursed food assistance in the following ways:

  • 45% for local, regional and international procurement
  • 27% for food vouchers
  • 23% for cash
  • 5% for other activities such as providing nutrition and agricultural training

Benefits of the Emergency Food Security Program

  • Effectiveness: Compared to other international food assistance programs, the EFSP is fairly efficient. For example, in Somalia between 2011 and 2012, 85% of flexible, cash-based aid reached recipients, while only 35% of funds budgeted to in-kind aid reached recipients. In total, LRP can be 25-53% cheaper than in-kind aid, depending on the type of commodity.
  • Speed: When disaster hits, time can be the difference between life and death. If aid does not reach a country fast enough, many suffer or die to a lack of critical assistance. The EFSP has a significant advantage compared to in-kind aid in this respect. Cash-based or locally purchased aid can reach those in need 11-14 weeks faster than in-kind aid. 
  • Satisfaction: In a survey of food aid recipients in Zambia, Burkina Faso and Guatemala, researchers found that most households preferred locally-purchased food to the U.S. sourced, in-kind aid. This likely reflects recipients’ preferences for the food they are familiar with as opposed to foreign-sourced sustenance.
  • Sustainability: One concern that some express about food aid is that it fosters dependency in recipient countries. However, LRP and cash-based food aid do not have disincentive effects on local agriculture. A review of 42 World Food Programme interventions showed that in 28 of the trials, locally purchased food aid had positive impacts on food production. Regionally procured food aid had no discernible impact on food production. A 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program using LRP also found that LRP had zero negative impacts on local food markets. Aid agencies such as USDA and USAID must, by law, monitor local markets to ensure food aid does not disrupt production.

What Congress Should Do

The EFSP has shown its value as a disaster response mechanism. When the EFSP developed in 2010, USAID appropriated over $244 million to the account, and that figure grew to $2.4 billion. In fact, EFSP now receives more funding than USAID’s Food for Peace aid program, with 49% of all U.S. food aid disbursed through the EFSP.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic will complicate its operations as travel remains restricted, people lose work and food becomes scarce in some regions. Chase Sova, senior director of public policy and research at the World Food Programme, noted that in-kind aid may be advantageous in some instances amid the pandemic. Simply put, food may not be plentiful enough in certain areas for a flexible approach to be the best method of delivery.

Still, EFSP is a valuable tool that should be expanded. The staggering burden of COVID-19 will exacerbate existing food shortages, meaning that aid agencies like USAID need to stretch their limited budgets as far as possible. Congress should also consider appropriating any additional food aid funding to the Emergency Food Security Program account, as doing so is the fastest way to reach the majority of the world’s hungry.

– Jonathan Helton
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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