Food Aid Needs a Facelift

Struck by the worst drought in fifty years, Ethiopia is in the midst of a true humanitarian crisis, one that has largely been ignored by mainstream media. In this three-part series (Part 1 can be found here), the Ethiopian case study will be used to explore food poverty in a global context.


American aid to the rescue…?

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is by far the largest provider of food aid in the world. In 2013, USAID provided $2 billion in emergency and development food assistance, which included 1.4 million metric tons of food. Most of that food came in the form of in-kind transfers – i.e., food grown in the United States and shipped to areas in need.

While U.S. food aid started out in the 1950s as a means to eliminate surplus commodities, today, USAID purchases food from American farmers through the market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Kansas City Commodity Office is in charge of issuing tenders and buying commodities for international food aid. The process is notoriously time-consuming – from the U.S., it takes three months for bulk commodities (e.g., corn, wheat) to reach their destinations, while it takes six months for processed commodities (e.g., corn soy blend, vegetable oil). The processed food items not only facilitate cooking, but they are also micronutrient fortified and scientifically designed to optimize the nutrition bang-for-your-buck. So the fact that it can take up to six months for the processed foods to arrive is, in many cases, dangerous; in some cases, deadly.

Robert Paarlberg, expert in international agricultural and environmental policy, has noted that America’s method of giving food aid has “changed little since the 1970s.”  Given the dramatic improvements that have occurred since the ‘70s – including widespread Internet coverage, hand-held mobile phones, and satellite Global Positioning System (GPS) – it is astounding that a majority of U.S. food aid is still grown in the States and shipped in U.S.-flag vessels. Every other major food donor, including the European nation states, Japan, and Canada, have moved toward local or regional purchase as the best practice of food aid; it is much cheaper and faster to purchase food closer to the site of emergency.

Yet the U.S. is legislatively mandated to distribute food aid via its antiquated mechanisms. Specifically, the Food for Peace Act, passed in 2008, stipulates that all food aid must originate from American-grown commodities or cash, and that 75% of that food aid must be shipped in U.S.-flag vessels as part of “cargo preference.” This cumbersome program utilizes a small and restrictive fleet of privately-owned U.S.-flag commercial vessels that often cannot mobilize quickly in times of emergency. Further, U.S. flag service is nonexistent in the USAID ports of Western and Southern Africa (where 80% of Food for Peace shipments are sent), and so USAID must go through the complicated and costly process of chartering U.S.-flag vessels from abroad.

The Agricultural Act of 2014 (also know as the “Farm Bill”) introduced a few key flexibilities. The cargo preference percentage was reduced to 50%, though this does not change the fact that U.S.-flag vessels are still 70-80% more costly than foreign-flag carriers. Additionally, the Farm Bill of 2014 authorized up to $80 million for Local and Regional Procurement (LRP) of commodities to provide international development assistance and expedite food aid, though that does not even constitute 4% of the total authorized budget. So while these adjustments certainly mark progress, they are not enough to offset the glaring inefficiencies of American food aid.

Today, for every dollar spent on basic grains, 59 cents of it goes to the middleman, whether that is through shipping costs, shipping regulation markups, or overhead. The middleman fees accrue to $471 million each year, which means that if food aid were reformed, $471 million more could be dedicated to actually putting food on the world’s table, instead of getting lost in the bureaucratic red tape. That said, transitioning to an LRP-dominant food aid system with zero cargo preference will be a hefty feat – more than 60 domestic organizations, led by the farm lobby and maritime lobby groups, currently stand in the way.

The response to current crisis

Unfortunately, American food aid can be both economically and functionally inefficient. Ethiopia is a frustrating case study because decades of food aid have resulted in little to no improvement in food security. This chronic food aid dependency prompted the Ethiopian government to launch its flagship development project – the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) – in 2005.

PSNP was designed as a food-for-work scheme, where local people participate in public works projects in exchange for food or cash. The projects include a variety of tasks, including well digging, resource management, and construction of rural roads. PSNP is currently funded by various organizations – private and public, domestic and international – and chief among them, the World Food Programme and USAID. At the outset, the goal was to end food dependency within three years; nine years later, there are more people on food aid today (7.9 million) than there were back when the program began (3 million). Additionally, the 7.9-million figure is entirely separate from the 10.2 million people who are newly at risk of food insecurity due to the recent drought.

Ethiopia is caught in a catch-22, where the only way to escape food aid dependency is through more food aid. According to the United Nations estimates, by the end of this year, Ethiopia will need $1.1 billion to buy food for more than 18 million people. PSNP is still the first line of response, since it addresses basic food needs through a predictable seasonal transfer of food and cash resources. Yet adequate funding remains an issue. In today’s volatile world, Ethiopia’s hunger is not the only item on the humanitarian to-do list; ongoing violent crises such as those in Syria, Yemen, and Central African Republic often take precedence.

So given the limited resources, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN has prioritized seed distribution above all else. Currently in the midst of the main meher season (June, July, August), many farming families have extremely limited purchasing power after their unsuccessful planting in 2015. Nearly 1.7 million farming families started the season with depleted seed reserves – many had to consume their seeds as food to survive the past year. In a vicious cycle of poverty, a poor harvest means that farmers do not have the ability to buy the seeds and inputs necessary to produce stable crops for the next harvest, which represents their only source of income generation. If this cycle is not broken for the 1.7 million vulnerable farmers, then the entire nation may soon find itself sucked in as well – the meher season produces 85% of the nation’s food supply, most of which is consumed domestically.

The right to food

At the very heart of the current situation is the universal right to food. Yet it is not just the right to adequate and nutritious food, as is the popular conception, but also the right to sustainable food. While food aid is necessary in emergencies, it must be complemented by real structural change that eventually makes the need for food aid obsolete. It is in the best interest of Ethiopia, the United States, and more broadly, the entire international community, to act now with both immediate relief and long-term structural reform, so that Ethiopia can escape the trap of food insecurity and head towards a stable future. In the final installment of this series, I will examine teff, one of Ethiopia’s staple crops, to show how American consumers are (inadvertently) involved in this food crisis. I will round off with a discussion on how both short-term and long-term goals may be best addressed.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on August 16, 2016.


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