Political sea change

After years of mounting criticism of the U.S. system of food aid delivery, this past spring President Barack Obama proposed a full overhaul.

For decades the U.S. Congress has considered food aid policy and funding under multi-year agricultural legislation known as the farm bill. The president’s proposal would have changed this (among multiple other reforms), forcing Congress to consider food aid instead as a foreign aid issue and thus delinking food aid from domestic agricultural interests.

Although receiving significant bipartisan support, the president’s proposal failed to receive the necessary backing. Nonetheless, important scaled-back changes have lived on in a Senate version of the farm bill, and many are optimistic these will now make it into law. (Differences between the Senate and House versions of the farm bill are currently being hammered out in a special committee.)

The Senate bill would make permanent a pilot project started in 2008, funding a tool to facilitate local purchasing at around 350 million dollars. It would also step up USAID’s ability to engage in local procurement by an additional 20 percent.

AJWS’s Gerson says these smaller-bore reforms are important “political statements”.

“Politically, we’ve really seen a sea change,” she says. “In 2008, this issue was so controversial that we couldn’t even get it to a vote. This time we lost by just 10 votes. Policy will take a little while to catch up, but we see these changes now as first steps.”

An important part of the changed political landscape has to do with the groups – particularly the implementing NGOs, the farming and shipping lobbies – that had long opposed tweaks to U.S. food aid policy. Gerson says this “iron triangle has been irrevocably broken”.

Several of the largest global humanitarian NGOs, including CARE and Save the Children, have now decided to support reforms. So too have some of the most prominent voices in the U.S. agriculture sector, including the agribusiness giant Cargill and the National Farmers Union (NFU).

Indeed, these latter two supported President Obama’s ambitious overhaul proposal. “[T]here is, and must continue to be, a clear, continuing role for American agriculture in food aid. However, our modern globalized food system makes the case for greater flexibility in our aid programs,” Roger Johnson, the NFU’s president, wrote in May.

As yet, however, the shipping groups continue to support requirements that half of U.S. food aid be transported on U.S.-flagged ships.

“The shipping lobby remains staunchly opposed,” Oxfam America’s Munoz says, “and they bear a lot of the responsibility for the failure of the movement on reform.”

© 2013 IPS North America

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