The future of US Food Aid

Expert panel debates US role in shaping global food security
July 30, 2013
by Grace Lerner

USAID’s Food for Peace program, which plays a major role in ensuring global food security, is undergoing a vigorous review in order to make it more nimble, efficient, and effective. Gone are the days of a one-size-fits-all approach to providing food aid where excess government food stocks are shipped to countries in need. But what should take its place?

A variety of unique perspectives on the future of food aid were shared at a lively panel discussion on “Proposed Reforms to U.S. Food Aid: Framing the Debate” hosted by FoodPolicy.US on July 18 at New York University’s Washington, DC campus. Moderated by former US Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, the panel consisted of Shenggen Fan, director general of IFPRI, Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, and Ellen Levinson, executive director of the Alliance for Global Food Security.

Roger Johnson described a basic food aid problem, wherein national governments purchase food stocks from commodity markets and then ship them half way across the world, resulting in high transaction costs, market inefficiencies, and significant time delays during emergencies. Ellen Levinson promoted the idea that new tools are needed by the US and its international partners in order to effectively address the multitude of food challenges—from ensuring proper nutrition of women and children and providing emergency relief following natural disasters to building local and regional food reserves and markets.

Shenggen Fan shared how IFPRI research has shown that local purchases not only help smallholders in recipient countries, but reduce the costs of food aid—resulting in fewer hungry people and more smallholders selling their food to aid programs. Cash and food vouchers also have a role to play in improving the welfare of recipient households and bringing more diversity to their diets. Fan warned, however, that effective food aid has to be highly context-specific, otherwise it can be counterproductive. For example, when there is limited food available in the local market, local purchases may increase food prices for poor consumers. And although cash transfers can be highly effective at reducing transaction costs, it is also important to make sure that women and children’s access to nutritious food is ensured.

The panelists all agreed that flexibility is key to achieving the desired food aid outcomes. According to Fan, while the proposed reforms to the USAID Food for Peace program allow for greater flexibility, there remains much room for improvement. First and foremost, he said, the programs should be based on strong research evidence on what works toward achieving specific targets. At the same time, policymakers need to think beyond the 2015 Millennium Development Goals and set forth a more ambitious post-2015 development agenda aimed at ending hunger by 2025. “I think we can do it, if we all work together to create a fair, transparent, and functioning food system.”

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