How New International Food Aid Rules Could Save Millions — In Lives And Dollars

The Somali famine of 2011 was a massive, monstrous failure on the part of the international community at almost all levels. A new report released on Thursday indicates that the crisis took the lives of a far greater number than many experts predicted: Up to 260,000 Somalis died that year, over half of them children, largely due to the world’s slow response.

While it can’t be known for certain, a set of proposals from the Obama administration to completely revamp food aid might be able to prevent future tragedies of this scale from happening. Currently, U.S. law says that 85 percent of all international food aid must be purchased from the United States, then shipped from our shores to the country in need. Under the new format, introduced in President Obama’s FY 2014 proposed budget, the amount of food required to be produced in the United States would drop to 55 percent, with the rest of it being purchased from local sources through donated cash.

As Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, having the ability to buy more food locally could make all the difference in a humanitarian crisis — such as in Somalia — in getting food to those in need faster, while saving the United States money:

KERRY: By giving us the ability to modernize, including the flexibility to also procure food aid in developing countries closer to the crisis areas, not only do we feed more people, but we get food to malnourished people 11 to 14 weeks faster. So here’s the bottom line: This change allows us to do more, to help more people lift themselves out of hunger at a rapid pace without spending more money. I think that’s a great deal for the American taxpayer.

USAID Director Ravij Shah explained during his own appearance before Congress last week that under the new proposals as many as 4 million extra people would be reached per year without an increase in the foreign aid budget. Without the new system, Shah warned, about 150,000 children in Somalia would cease to receive food aid from the U.S. as other hotspots around the world consume the fifteen percent of food aid able to purchased locally. Such a decrease would prove devastating in the event of another massive crisis on the same scale as Somalia’s.

While a 2006 proposal to increase food aid flexibility to 25 percent failed, the odds are looking better for the new attempt. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) — the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee respectively — put out a letter supporting the initiative following the release of President Obama’s budget. Despite that, pressure is growing from agricultural interests such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and lawmakers from states with large farming populations to water down — or outright kill — the proposal.

CAP experts in a 2012 report called for the restructuring of the U.S.’ food aid program in a similar fashion to the method the administration is advancing. “At a minimum, we recommend that nonemergency food aid be exempt from both cargo preference and “buy American” requirements,” the report suggests, adding that “cost savings from these reforms would vary from year to year depending on fluctuations in food assistance. We estimate, however, that efficiency gains would range from $488 million to $628 million annually.”

(Photo Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)