In the coming days, Congress has an opportunity to reform the way our government provides food aid to victims of conflict and natural disasters around the world.
A House-Senate conference committee — which includes three members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation — is now negotiating a final version of the U.S. farm bill. It will consider a bipartisan proposal that would increase the number of people we could assist around the world — at no additional cost to taxpayers.
The United States has always been generous; the U.S. “Food for Peace” program has helped alleviate hunger for decades. But many of its key features are antiquated, and the absence of reform has prevented America from saving the lives of millions more.
As the former heads of U.S. programs providing billions of dollars in aid around the world, we witnessed the suffering of refugees from Rwanda, Kosovo and Somalia, the ravages of natural disasters in Haiti and Central America, and the horrific scenes of children and their families escaping conflict in the Middle East. Each of these tragedies evoked heartfelt responses from the American people, who quite naturally demand an urgent and efficient assistance effort from our government. Yet our outdated laws tie the hands of officials, slowing response times and limiting options.
In Somalia, for example, a 2011-12 drought put millions at risk, and brought more than 750,000 to the brink of starvation. The U.S. Agency for International Development mobilized a large-scale food aid effort, but shipments of U.S.-supplied food were blocked by armed groups affiliated with Al-Qaida.
In contrast to failed efforts to ship food, U.S.-supported cash transfers and food vouchers extended a lifeline to communities that U.S. food could not reach. But current law imposes strict limitations on such transfers in favor of large-scale commodity shipments that often make no sense.
As a result, and due to competing needs in places like Syria, the cash transfer and food voucher program was cut back this year, serving 350,000 fewer people — including 155,000 fewer children. Tragically, U.S. officials have faced similar frustrations in other parts of the world where our cash and voucher assistance could save lives.
The bipartisan proposal contained in the Senate version of the farm bill, now being negotiated with House members, would give U.S. aid officials more freedom to select the most effective response to a crisis. Even with reform, the law would still require that the majority of assistance come from the purchase of commodities from U.S. farmers. But the reforms would give officials more latitude to buy food closer to where it is needed, alongside the commodities we transport across oceans.
Reforms similar to those in the Senate bill were initially defeated in the House by 17 votes. At the time, lobbyists exaggerated the impact on the financial interests of their clients. Jobs lost in the U.S. shipping industry would be near zero, according to a Defense Department study. The impact on U.S. farm income would be negligible. U.S. food aid accounts for less than 1 percent of total agriculture exports, and in 2011 accounted for only 0.56 percent of net farm income.
Yet reform could enable lifesaving aid to reach millions of additional people in need, according to a study from two highly respected development organizations, Oxfam America and the American Jewish World Service.
As the former and current deans of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, we know well of the contributions of Minnesota’s favorite son in promoting generous U.S. support for those in need around the world. If Hubert Humphrey were alive today, he would be cajoling Minnesota’s Senate and House delegations to support improvements to a food aid program he had a major role in creating. In short, he’d be urging House conferees to accept the Senate provision.
Brian Atwood served as the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development from 1993 to 1999 and as dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs from 2002 to 2010. Eric Schwartz, current dean of the Humphrey School, served as assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration from 2009 to 2011.