The New York Times reports that debate over the shape of a U.S. government program to help millions of victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has “reignited a long-running argument in the United States—the world’s largest food aid donor—over how America supplies food in its $1.4 billion international food aid program.”
While there should not be unnecessary delays in getting humanitarian aid to the Philippines, the debate over the shape of U.S. food aid programs is one worth having.
Bipartisan efforts earlier this year to amend the 2013 farm bill and introduce greater flexibility into the U.S. food aid program—i.e., to permit the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to purchase up to 45 percent of food aid locally—were rejected in both the House and the Senate.
There is now another opportunity for reform—albeit a weaker version, with just 20 percent flexibility—as the farm bill heads toward a conference committee for final action. Congress should ensure that the final bill includes that flexibility, which will increase efficiency and effectiveness. In addition to allowing food aid dollars help more people, the changes could lead to savings that could be used to reduce the federal deficit.
Of course, in the longer term, U.S. “Food for Peace” aid programs should be changed to eliminate legal requirements on the use of U.S. food and shipping entirely. Wasteful “monetization” programs and subsidies to U.S. shippers should be scrapped. In the case of help to the Philippines, according to USAID, the 20 percent flexibility provision and reduced reliance on monetization could mean that an additional 2 million people would be reached with U.S. food aid resources.
After all, the idea of food aid is for American taxpayers to help starving people in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible, not to serve as a conduit for payoffs to U.S. agribusinesses, shipping companies, and other middlemen.