As a country, the US does food aid badly. We require that the aid be requisitioned here in the US and that it travel to the disaster zone on US-flagged vessels. These requirements create significant time delays and raise costs (as former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios put it, “food aid often gets there after everyone is dead”), as well as tilting the composition of aid towards crops that we grow, not products that are most appropriate. We even have one program that takes US grown food, gives it to private NGOs, who sell it in poor countries and use the proceeds to fund their programs. The Government Accountability Office estimates that this “monetization” scheme reduces resources available for development by about 25 percent.
During the George W. Bush Administration, USAID Administrator Natisos, now one of the co-chairs of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, proposed moving to a system where the US would procure aid in nearby areas and deliver it as quickly as possible. His proposal ran into an unholy alliance of farmers, shipping companies, and some aid groups and was reduced to a pilot program. That program now accounts for about 25 percent of US emergency food aid. The Obama Administration’s budget for 2014 proposes increasing that share to up to 45 percent and the termination of the “monetization” scheme.
This modest proposal has split the “humanitarian community.” Groups such as Oxfam America have come out in favor of the reforms, while the Alliance for Global Food Security, which includes organizations such as World Vision and International Relief and Development (IRD), opposes. NGOs like IRD, which benefit from the “monetization” scheme, appear to be particularly vehement in their opposition. While the proposed reforms have logic on their side—who could be opposed to increasing the timeliness and efficiency of relief—the opponents make the political argument that without the support of the self-interested farmer and shipper constituencies, support for aid will decline. It’s not an implausible assessment, and Catholic Relief Services, which supports the reform, would like a proviso to keep resources at current levels.