WASHINGTON — U.S. food aid goes back to the days following World War II. Initially, the idea was to take American grain left over from the war era and export it to starving populations overseas.
The problem with this altruistic gesture is that the system of distribution is highly inefficient. According to Oxfam, U.S. imports can take as long as six months to reach their destinations.
The long wait time is due to 50-year-old laws that require all food aid be bought from American granaries. This practice raises the cost of transport compared to using local sources. Another contributor to costs and delays is a law that mandates at least 50 percent of aid be shipped on American ships.
All told, less than 50 cents of every dollar spent on food aid reaches the people who need it.
For the first time in history, there are enough food supplies and resources to completely eliminate world hunger. Yet the flaws in this system prove to be barriers. As it stands, more than one-ninth of the human population goes hungry on a regular basis.
The solution is not so simple. Apart from inefficiencies, there are political alliances, local conflicts, and low levels of education to consider when establishing food aid reform.
Political alliances can be especially powerful when they unite two or more nations against other nations. This is the situation that has led to war, causing the inevitable outcomes of interrupted education, poverty and civilian deaths.
Lack of education is also a powerful force in the prevention of reform. Currently, Africa holds the highest rate of illiteracy of any continent. Unesco estimates that about 38 percent of African adults cannot read or write. A handful of African countries have literacy rates below 50 percent.
Without literacy, the poorest of African people lack the skills and social connections they need to raise themselves out of poverty and, by extension, starvation. Consequently, a large number of people who would otherwise be in the best positions to improve the living conditions of their neighbors struggle to attain an education.
As the vicious cycle perpetuates itself, the poorest populations continue to depend on a dysfunctional system of foreign aid. But it does not have to remain this way.
Members of Congress have already made considerable efforts to institute reform. Included among the most outspoken are U.S. representatives Ed Royce (R-CA), Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Karen Bass (D-CA).
In 2013, these three worked to pass an amendment to the farm bill that would feed more people, more quickly and at a lower cost.
Although the House did not pass the bill, Gawain Kripke of Oxfam points out that the campaign is not over. “The social infrastructure we’ve built is now an advocacy asset. It might erode and become dilapidated. Or we can maintain it carefully, so it’s ready next time we get a chance to fight for a better, more efficient, faster, and more effective food aid program,” Kripke said.
– Leah Zazofsky
Sources: OXFAM America, Roll Call, United Human Rights Council, UNESCO, House Committee on Foreign Affairs