Saturday, April 06, 2013

Much Needed Reform to Food Aid - We Hope

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What better way to end the month-long hiatus than by sharing the good new on food aid reform. According Politico, NYtimes and others, the Obama administration is expecting to announce a full transition to local procurement and cash vouchers. Instead of the sending containers full of US-grown commodities across the ocean, humanitarian and development organizations would soon be able to buy the food needed in regional and local markets.

Although I've written many times here and elsewhere about this, allow me to recap why I consider this a huge deal. First of all, our current system - in-kind food aid programs - is extremely inefficient and expensive. Most of the funding goes to pay for shipping and the food often takes months to arrive to its destination. In addition, the practice of selling food aid in local markets - monetization - can reduce local prices, leaving poor farmers worse off. The type of food is often not culturally adequate, and -with few exceptions-  it provides little nutritional value as it's mostly basic staples.

Local and regional procurement - the way WFP and other international donors do food aid - is much cheaper and efficient. Reporting for NPR's Morning Edition, Dan Charles interviewed Andrew Natsios (former USAID Administrator)  on the proposed changes to Food for Peace, the main program used to distribute food aid. According Natsios, when he first proposed the local procurement at one of the food aid conference in Kansas City, he was almost physically attacked. Virulent opposition coming from the shippers and some sector of the farm lobby prevented the reform from taking place.

I had the opportunity to visit one of the Kansas City Food Aid conferences few years ago while working for a small Nicaraguan NGO that relied on some USAID programs for its operations. The one thing that stuck in my mind was the shiny showcases the shippers used to allure contractors and NGOs into hiring their services when sending food aid across the ocean. I would later learn that close to half of our food aid budget goes to pay for these services.

Few stands from the shippers, my nostrils captured the smell of salmon coming from one of the corners. I followed my nose expecting a guy giving out delicious d'œuvres to find instead an Alaskan company sampling canned wild salmon used in food aid. While quite tasty, the cost of shipping these guys to places like Somalia, Ethiopia and Bangladesh takes up to 90% of the total tab American tax payers have to pay for the program.

Later in my career I had the honor to work with the USDA in a pilot program to replace in-kind food aid. Our proposal was one of the few in Latin America and the only one used to supply rural schools with fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy from nearby farmer cooperatives. I saw the tremendous impact programs like these can have in the communities where they are implemented. One of the farmer coops we worked with was able to expand its market to other costumers. In fact, a key factor behind the famous Brazil's Zero Hunger program was its local procurement for public schools, a model similar to the current proposal.

While we are all still waiting for the official announcement from the administration, I really hope this time we get it right. It wouldn't be the first time powerful lobbying groups and a handful of humanitarian organizations get away with maintaining our current broken system. I'll keep you all posted.