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Few Friends on Hill for Bush’s Food Aid Plan

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/wheat1.jpgPhoto Credit: iStockphoto

It arrived, almost as an afterthought, in the final minutes of last month’s State of the Union Address: A call from President George W. Bush to allow the nation’s largest foreign food aid program to purchase food abroad in response to humanitarian crises.

“Today, more than half the world’s food aid comes from the United States,” Bush said on Jan. 28. “And tonight, I ask Congress to support an innovative proposal to provide food assistance by purchasing crops directly from farmers in the developing world, so we can build up local agriculture and help break the cycle of famine.”

Congress_4635.jpg
Congress_4635.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Lawmakers responded with a hearty applause. But if their outward approval came as a surprise to the president, there is good reason. This year marks the fourth in which the White House has proposed to revamp the country’s 54-year-old food aid program — now legally obligated to purchase nearly all its crops from U.S. farmers — to allow up to 25 percent of its budget to buy food closer to those who need it.

But for three years running, Congress has stopped the plan cold. This year, lawmakers are certain to do the same. Even a much less ambitious strategy to launch a test project allowing in-cash food aid of $25 million — a drop in the bucket relative to the $2.1 billion the United States spent on foreign food aid last year — has hit a brick wall in Congress, and appears destined for oblivion.

It’s not for a lack of need. The United Nations estimates that about 850 million people are currently undernourished worldwide. Ten million of them die every year due to hunger or hunger-related ailments.

Supporters of the Bush proposal say it would cut into those figures by reducing food delivery times and eliminating costly shipping fees that would be better spent on more food. By its own estimates, the administration says the plan would save 50,000 lives every year.

“It’s very clear that we needed to have this done a long time ago,” said Andrew Natsios, the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who first sold the 25-percent proposal to the White House. “The problem has been the domestic politics.”

Unlike many political sagas, however, this one is not merely a rehashing of long-held partisan differences. Nor can the opposition to Bush’s proposal be dismissed as evidence of a neutered president navigating the twilight of his lame-duck term. Rather, the evolution of America’s largest food aid program, Food for Peace, has formed a tangled web of interests, aligning the agriculture and shipping industries with some of the world’s largest aid organizations — all of which have a vested interest in keeping things as they are.

Their pocketbooks threatened, these groups have bombarded Congress with cash, uniting farm-state lawmakers of both parties against the administration’s plan

Their pocketbooks threatened, these groups have bombarded Congress with cash, uniting farm-state lawmakers of both parties against the administration’s plan — or anything resembling it. When Senate Agricultural Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the $25 million pilot project as part of his 2007 farm bill proposal, the opposition from committee members was so immediate that he was forced to shift the funding source out of the agriculture budget, in effect killing the initiative. In the House, the concept died sooner.

The controversy has even set the White House against several administrative agencies. Natsios said that the day he left U.S. AID, officials from both the Agriculture and Commerce Departments stormed down to the Office of Management and Budget, demanding that the 25-percent cash option be removed from the president’s budget. On hearing the news, Natsios said he had to call a high-level White House official to keep the provision alive. Afterward, Natsios says, Bush seemed to become more personally invested in the proposal.

Supporters of the president’s plan are quick to concede that the move to cash aid is a tricky business. David Kauck, senior policy analyst at CARE, a non-profit aid group that receives Food for Peace donations, warned that simply dumping cash onto a region can spike local prices, putting commodities out of reach for native populations.

“If you do it the wrong way,” he said, “you can end up inadvertently causing hunger.”

Still, supporters emphasize that they aren’t advocating for mandatory cash aid, only for the option to get cash in circumstances when it would prove advantageous. In regions where food is either unavailable or of poor quality, for example, in-kind donations are welcome, said Jennifer Parmalee, a spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program, the largest food aid distributor in the world.

In emergencies where plenty of food is already available, however, the influx of more food can crash local markets, increasing the number of folks who need assistance.

Recent economic trends have made the cash option vital, Parmalee said, as the rising cost of fuel and commodities, combined with the falling value of the dollar, have conspired to make in-kind food donations less efficient. This concerns the WFP for an obvious reason: 42 percent of the agency’s $2.9 billion budget last year came from the U.S., virtually all of it arriving as in-kind aid.

Bolstering that concern, the Government Accountability Office issued a report last April revealing that rising business and shipping costs — now consuming about 65 percent of America’s emergency food aid budget — resulted in a 52 percent decline in the amount of food delivered over the last five years.

Still, some charity groups have been less enthusiastic about the White House plan. World Vision, for example, a major recipient of Food for Peace aid, opposes the 25-percent proposal, favoring a smaller experiment along the lines of Harkin’s plan. “The program should be based on evidence,” said Robert Zachritz, World Vision’s director of advocacy and government relations.

But Natsios, pointing to cash-aid food programs sponsored by Canada, Australia and the Europe Union, rejected that claim. “We know how to do it,” he said. “It’s been tested. I’ve watched people starve to death waiting for food to arrive.”

The intensity of the argument is an indication of what’s at stake. And the rolling debate has raised criticisms about the efficiency of the program, prompted questions about America’s moral responsibilities to the developing world, and even brought charges of corporate welfare. But at the heart of the debate the question remains: What is the purpose of the program? (Hint: It has little to do with humanitarian intent.)

Last year, The New York Times reported that more than half of the food aid purchased in recent years has gone to just four companies and their subsidiaries: Cargill, Bunge, Cal Western Packaging and Archer Daniels Midland. None of the four would comment on their relationship with Food for Peace, but to contract with a program that spent $1.87 billion last year must have its benefits.

But that, according to the shipping and agriculture industries, is all part of the plan. Brian Schoeneman, executive director of the American Maritime Congress, said the Food for Peace program was designed to do more than feed hungry people overseas. “There is an economic stimulus side as well,” he said. “It keeps the farmers growing, and it keeps the ships sailing.”

A number of lawmakers — many from farm states — agree. Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the highest ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, issued a statement this week questioning the logic of allowing America’s food aid to leave U.S. shores as cash.

“The purchases from U.S. farms benefit our economy,” he said, “as the expenditures circulate through the U.S. economy rather than the European economy or that of other major food exporting nations … I believe making this type of policy change carries the great risk of undercutting congressional support for food aid programs and thereby the ability to provide aid to those in need.”

From the perspective of the American economy, the U.S.-purchase stipulation is a blessing, even in the face of higher food and fuel costs. But in the eyes of a number of aid groups and academics, it’s hardly the most efficient way to feed hungry people living oceans away.

Indeed, from the perspective of the American economy, the U.S.-purchase stipulation is a blessing, even in the face of higher food and fuel costs. But in the eyes of a number of aid groups and academics, it’s hardly the most efficient way to feed hungry people living oceans away.

“That means you’re squeezing the amount of aid you can actually provide,” said Kimberly Elliot, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “Let’s talk about subsidies for the shipping industry, if that’s what this is, but don’t hide them behind a program to feed poor people … It’s in some sense corporate welfare.”

Critics of the current system bring up another argument: The food aid budget, while significant in the eyes of aid groups and developing countries, is tiny relative to America’s agriculture economy. The small family farmer, they say, wouldn’t suffer a thing under the Bush proposal.

“It’s a very small number of people who have an acute economic interest in this thing,” said David Tschirley, an international development professor at Michigan State University, “and they’re going to put their resources behind the lobbying that’s needed to keep the policy as it is.”

There is evidence that farm-state lawmakers see the Bush plan as an encroachment onto their turf. In their report accompanying the 2006 agricultural spending bill, House conference committee members remarked, “[We] admonish the Executive Branch to refrain from proposals which place at risk a carefully balanced coalition of interests which have served the interests of international food assistance programs well for more than fifty years.”

Political donations may also play a factor. For the 2006 election cycle, agribusinesses gave $388,000 to Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), then the highest ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, according to the non-partisan contribution watchdog Open Secrets. The same industry gave another $376,000 to then-Chariman Goodlatte. Cargill alone gave $60,000 to committee members of both parties in the same cycle.

Peterson’s office declined to comment on whether the congressman supports the Harkin or Bush proposals.

Still, some farm-state lawmakers have been vocal in their backing of the president’s proposal. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley (R ) told reporters last month that he supports a partial cash-aid option, even as he acknowledged that it would rile the farmers in his own state.

“Most of the commodity groups in Iowa would be opposed to that,” Grassley said. “[But] it seems like too often we wait ’til too many hundreds of thousands of people have starved to death before we’ve gotten the food there.”

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