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A continuing effort to answer an elusive, multi-billion-dollar question: "After Haiti's devastating earthquake, where did the aid money go?"

US food aid reformers seek place in Farm Bill debate

Congress seen as unlikely to make major changes to a system that critics say hurts recipients in the long run.

Advocates of reform say that aside from small modifications to “safe boxes” or subsidies, major change to the food aid portion of the Farm Bill is not likely.

"Because there's not an active public discussion about what alternatives exist, members of Congress may simply believe that this is the best and most appropriate way of delivering aid,” warned Munoz. "But look at donor practice across donors and you will recognize that the US in the aid it delivers is an outlier.”

Most other donor countries have moved toward more flexible programs that include cash aid, vouchers, and locally and regionally produced sources of food.

European Union donors, for example, passed a regulation in 1996 that allowed for more flexible use of the food assistance budget and restricted the use of in-kind food aid unless no other alternative existed.

Ten years later, in 2006, 97 percent of the food aid budget was used for locally and regionally procured foods, and since then the EU has maintained consistent levels of targeted emergency food aid while also reducing shipping costs.

The World Food Program, the food aid branch of the United Nations, is widely regarded as having the most expertise in determining the most efficient and effective ways to address hunger worldwide. Its International Food Aid Information System reveals that in 2010, all WFP food aid to Haiti was “local purchase.”

The same was true for France and Ireland, whereas the US purchased 3,564 metric tons locally while shipping 153,067 metric tons of food produced in the US to Haiti.

Over the past decade the US has spent an average of $2.2 billion annually on international food aid programs, both for emergency needs and development programs. The largest program is Food for Peace, which typically accounts for anywhere between 50 and 90 percent of the global food aid budget. It was first signed into law in 1954 in legislation intended to expand US exports, setting a minimum for annual food spending regardless of the needs of other countries.

Another is Food for Progress, introduced in 1985 to donate or sell and then monetize US commodities in order support agricultural development in developing countries. The 2008 Farm Bill added pilot programs in which the US Department of Agriculture and the US Agency for International Development, the two agencies that administer food aid, would support local and regional procurement with $60 million over four years.

Early reports indicate that the pilot programs saw increased effectiveness and decreased delivery time, but Paul Green, an international trade consultant at the North American Millers Association, which produces specialty food grains used for in-kind food aid, said local and regional procurement cannot meet the rising global demand for food.

“Procurement is done in hundreds of thousands of tons, and with these pilot projects, their procurement ability is in truckloads,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a thousand sacks compared to several thousand tons is really impacting the overall ability to supply the food aid need.”

The 2008 Farm Bill set aside $22 million annually for the monitoring and assessment of food aid programs, partly in response to criticism that USAID did not have adequate oversight of its programs — a concern validated by GlobalPost reporting on USAID projects in Haiti since the earthquake.

It also provided a “safe box” for funding set aside for development projects, which began at $375 million for fiscal year 2009 and grew to $450 million by fiscal year 2012.

This was a victory for private voluntary organizations such as World Vision that rely on monetization and other forms of non-emergency food aid for their funding, and a defeat for the administration, which expressed concern that a safe box could get in the way of the flexibility needed to respond to emergency food needs.

“World Vision is urging Congress to ensure that $1.8 billion is appropriated over the next five years that will preserve what is called the ‘safe box.’ The safe box is funding set aside specifically for development food assistance programs, such as the Haiti MYAP [multiyear food assistance program], that address the root issues causing food insecurity,” explained Paul Macek, the organization's senior director of food security and livelihoods.

Now, as in 2008, special interests including the organizations that rely on food aid for their steady stream of funding are making the rounds on Capitol Hill.

This year, the agribusiness lobby may be more fractured than in the past, as commodity groups are likely to focus their attention on direct payment subsidies, working to protect billions of dollars a year in direct payments, which are at risk in the 2012 Farm Bill.

But moving away from a system centered on US crop exports is still a barrier for change, as it would cause some to question why food aid should continue to fall under the Farm Bill at all.

“There is a turf battle between the Agriculture Committee, which wants to keep jurisdiction over this program small as it is, and the committee on foreign affairs, where the rest of our assistance fits,” Munoz explained. "We need a real rethinking about how we deliver assistance for food insecurity … but I don't think there's a serious effort to get us there anytime soon."