The White House plan, which is included in the 2014 budget proposal, marks a significant shift in US policy and could speed up the response to crises, boost local production and improve the nutritional value of food aid, say campaigners who had long lobbied for the change.
Eric Muñoz of Oxfam called the proposal a “bold step” that has already gained some top-level support in the US Congress.
“We have a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing acute humanitarian crises … a system that was designed in the 1950s and has largely remained based on 1950s policies,” said Muñoz, the senior policy advisor for agriculture and food security at Oxfam’s Washington office.
“It is highly significant that this proposal has been put on the table - this is a huge step in the right direction and it’s something that we’ve been fighting for for a number of years,” he said by telephone.
In step with the EU, Canada
President Barack Obama’s proposal could face a less welcome reception in Congress, where farm-state lobbies have considerable muscle. President George W. Bush’s call for similar reform fizzled.
But if approved, it would mark the first time that Washington moves away from buying surplus food from American farmers and shipping it to developing countries or disaster zones. The proposal would put the Americans in line with the EU and more recently Canada to use cash transfers and vouchers in times of food insecurity.
US congressional figures show that America has traditionally provided about half of global food aid, compared to 27% for the EU, and is the main contributor to the World Food Programme, accounting for 45% of its donations compared to 29% for the EU.
The White House has asked Congress for $1.8 billion, or €1.4 billion, to fund foreign food assistance for 2014. The EU spends about €1 billion annually on food security and farm development in developing countries.
“The president’s proposal commits to a more rapid, cost-effective, and life-saving food aid programme that pairs the continued purchase of American food aid with a diverse set of tools, including local procurement and food vouchers,” said Rajiv Shah, who heads the US Agency for International Development.
“As we ask for this increased flexibility, we commit to maintaining our purchase of American food - and increasing our focus on the higher value, more nutritious products that are so critical to improving child nutrition and saving lives.”
The US is also focusing more on investing in child nutritional support and education in foreign aid policies, in line with new European Commission proposals. Last year, the G8 nations agreed to support an alliance for food security and nutrition with African nations, and food and nutrition are the focus of a G8 summit in Northern Ireland in June.
Cold War relic
Pressed by Britain, European countries agreed in the 1990s to move towards a food aid system based on regional food procurement through cash transfers and vouchers rather than bulk food deliveries.
Though the change has not replaced the need for food donations - especially during disasters or in times of humanitarian crisis - the approach is seen as a way to boost local production while providing fresher, more nutrition-rich foods to needy communities.
The World Food Programme, the UN agency that is often at the vanguard of famines and food emergencies, also is using cash transfers and food vouchers, citing the economic value of sourcing food locally and the nutritional value of fresh produce over bulk imports.
But the US has stuck to a formula which dates to post-war reconstruction efforts in Europe and Asia, and was reinforced through the first international food aid convention in 1967.
Oxfam and other organisations have long contended that the US programme hurt smallholder farms in recipient nations by deflating prices by “dumping” surplus commodities.
The Oakland Institute, a think tank in California, has in the past accused the US government of using aid to create export markets for American farmers. In one highly critical report, the think tank said: “Used as a foreign policy instrument and as a way to expand export markets, US food aid still largely serves US interests. By nature, it does not contribute to the eradication of hunger as it is based on the incorrect assumption that both farmers in the US and in recipient countries benefit from food aid.
“Feeding people will not solve the problem of hunger. The US has not yet acknowledged that the alleviation of hunger in the poorest countries requires a massive effort to promote self-sufficient agriculture in these countries,” the report said.
Europe has also come under fire for negotiating trade policies that are seen as hurting developing nation farmers, who are unprepared to meet European safety regulations or unable to compete with subsidised European goods.
More flexibility and faster response
Oxfam’s Muñoz explained the multiple benefits of cash- and voucher-based food assistance. It saves money on long-term storage, reduces transport times from “months to days,” and encourages development of resilient agriculture in countries or regions prone to food emergencies.
Cash transfers are seen as a development tool because local sourcing of food creates markets for farmers and jobs in distribution.
“We can set up these systems very quickly, we can get resources to people in need very efficiently,” Muñoz explained, “and we can do it in a way that maintains some of the same, or increases, the accountability of the system to ensure that the people we are trying to aid actually are the recipients of the aid and that it doesn’t get syphoned off.”
Vouchers can also be designed to encourage the purchase of vitamin and nutrient-rich foods, critical to childhood development and physical resilience to diseases. In contrast, Muñoz said, bulk foods can deliver “a whole lot of calories but that doesn’t mean a lot of nutrients and micronutrients.”
The US policy shift is partly based on lessons learned in conflict zones, where fighting hampered delivery of relief supplies.
Recalling efforts to deliver food supplies to Somali refugees, USAID’s Shah said in a recent speech in Washington: “Armed groups openly affiliated with al-Qaeda blocked our access, attacked our food convoys, and targeted food distribution centers. In the hardest hit areas of southern Somalia where these militants ruled, food aid couldn’t save lives.
“But cash transfers could.”