NIAMEY, Niger — Gado Alhadi is 67 years old, a farmer, and the patriarch of a family of 11. He lives in a small, rural village in southern Niger. Alhadi, like many in Niger, exists on the edge of hunger. Unbeknownst to him, he is at the forefront of a major change in United States food aid policy.
Recent months have been extremely difficult for Alhadi’s family. Intense drought led to a grossly inadequate harvest last year. Niger’s hungry season usually starts in July, but had already hit hard by the spring. Food stocks dwindled and the poor started foraging and skipping meals. In late April, the United Nations sounded the alarm: Another famine was looming.
By the beginning of August, Alhadi’s family had been without sufficient food for five months. They were down to eating one paltry meal per day. That’s when they started receiving American food aid: three months worth of maize and cowpeas from Benin and Niger, and vouchers to purchase salt and oil in nearby markets.
What Alhadi does not realize is that his maize, cowpeas and vouchers represent a groundbreaking change in how the United States provides food aid. Alhadi’s relative bounty came from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Food for Peace program, the largest food donor in the world.
For decades, food from USAID has been grown by American farmers and sent to developing countries on U.S. flag-bearing ships. For a distant country like Niger, getting food could take five to six months — time that hungry people like Alhadi don’t have.
But this year in Niger is different. For the first time, Food for Peace provided food grown locally in Africa and vouchers to buy goods in nearby markets. The first pilot grant of nearly $5 million was awarded to the humanitarian agency Mercy Corps, my employer, in mid-June. Mercy Corps started distributing food and vouchers in Niger six weeks after receiving the grant — record time by food aid standards — and 130,000 people will get food.
To aid organizations, food assistance experts and many politicians, the shift to providing locally or regionally purchased food, or even cash assistance or vouchers, is intuitive. These programs help get food into the hands of hungry people in a faster, more efficient way. With rising wheat prices and recent riots in Mozambique fueling speculation about crisis-level food shortages, this speed and efficiency are even more important.
Providing more flexibility in food aid also saves U.S. taxpayer dollars. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in June 2009 found that when the World Food Program purchased food locally for countries in Africa, it cost 34 percent less than shipping it from the U.S. These new programs can also help boost local producers and pose less of a distortive threat to markets. Why import large quantities of oil if it’s already available for sale in the next village?
This is not a novel concept. All donor countries — most notably Canada and the European Union — provide food aid through a combination of local, regional purchase and cash. For most of the world, this is business as usual but the U.S. has been slow to make the shift. Other branches of the U.S. government that offer overseas assistance, such as the Department of Agriculture, have started employing pilot grants with more flexible food aid, but only recently and only in response to emergencies.
Why has the U.S. been so slow? Political paralysis has consistently trumped common sense and the needs of the world’s poor. The push for more flexible food aid began under President George W. Bush, who repeatedly proposed that 25 percent of Food for Peace funding should be used to buy food closer to those in need. President Barack Obama, boosted by the recommendations of the June 2009 GAO report for more flexible and varied food aid, built momentum and kept the pressure on. At the same time, the concerns of American agricultural and shipping industries about potential lost profits have slowly faded.
Following the Niger programs, Mercy Corps received two additional pilot grants from Food for Peace, including a voucher program to feed 100,000 people in Haiti, and cash assistance for 32,000 people in violence-torn Kyrgyzstan. But the permanence or expansion of these programs is not a foregone conclusion. In the coming months, USAID and aid organizations must be diligent in demonstrating their success, and reform-minded politicians need to push for more change.
One person who won’t be watching the swirl of politics around food aid is Gado Alhadi. He’s far too busy just fighting to survive, and today, with some timely support, he is winning.
Paul Armour is the Niger country director for Mercy Corps.