African Food for Africa's Starving
Is Roadblocked in Congress
By Celia W. Dugger
New York Times, October 12, 2005
It seemed like a no-brainer: changing
the law to allow the federal government to buy food in Africa
for Africans facing starvation instead of paying enormous sums
to ship it from the American heartland, halfway around the world.
Not only would the food get to the hungry in weeks instead of
months, the government would save money and help African farmers
at the same time.
The new approach had an impeccable sponsor
in Republican-dominated Washington. The Bush administration, famous
for its go-it-alone style, was trying to move the United States
- by far the world's biggest food donor - into the international
mainstream with a proposal to take a step in just this direction.
A lot of rich countries had already done so, most recently Canada.
So why is this seemingly sensible, cost-effective
proposal near death in Congress?
Fundamentally, because the proposal challenges
the political bargain that has formed the basis for food aid over
the past half century: that American generosity must be good not
just for the world's hungry but also for American agriculture.
That is why current law stipulates that all food aid provided
by the United States Agency for International Development be grown
by American farmers and mostly shipped on United States-flag vessels.
More practically, however, it is because the administration's
proposal has run into opposition from three interests some critics
call the Iron Triangle of food aid: agribusiness, the shipping
industry and charitable organizations.
Just four companies and their subsidiaries,
led by Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, sold more than half
the $700 million in food commodities provided through the United
States Agency for International Development's food aid program
in 2004, government records show. Just five shipping companies
received over half the more than $300 million spent to ship that
food, records show.
Members of Congress often applaud the
benefits of food aid for American farmers, but that is not really
how it works, as Christopher B. Barrett, a Cornell University
economist and co-author of "Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting
its Role," noted. "It's the middlemen who enjoy most
of the gains," he said, "not the farmers."
Mr. Barrett's research has established
a third side to the triangle of interests with a deep stake in
the status quo: nonprofit aid organizations. He and his co-author,
Daniel Maxwell, a CARE official, found that at least seven of
them, including Catholic Relief Services and CARE itself, depended
on food aid for a quarter to half their budgets in 2001. Those
groups distribute food in poor countries. But what is less well
known is that they have also become grain traders, selling substantial
amounts of the donated food on local markets in poor countries
to generate tens of millions of dollars for their antipoverty
programs. Given that at least 50 cents of each dollar's worth
of food aid is spent on transport, storage and administrative
costs, selling food to raise money in, say, Africa, is an exceedingly
inefficient way to finance long-term development, Mr. Barrett
said. Better to just give nonprofit groups the money directly.
Had the Agency for International Development
had the authority to buy food in Ethiopia in the mid-1980's, when
a million perished, or in 1999-2000 when 20,000 died, it could
have saved many more lives, said its administrator, Andrew S.
Natsios, who added, "Speed is everything in a famine response."
He pushed within the administration for
a proposal that would allow up to a quarter of his agency's food
aid budget to be spent in developing countries. President Bush
approved the idea, he said, and it was included in the proposed
2006 budget introduced in February.
Ed Fox, the agency's assistant administrator
for legislative and public affairs, said the issue was deliberately
given a low profile. Little was to be gained from putting members
of Congress in the position of choosing between agricultural constituencies
and starving children, he said.
But if the proposal was little noticed
by the general public, it did not escape the attention of groups
representing the so-called Iron Triangle, who argued that cash
used to buy food was more likely to be misused or stolen than
were in-kind food donations. They maintained that the administration's
proposal should not come at the expense of a program "upon
which American producers, processors and shipping companies rely,"
as a statement from an ad hoc coalition of 17 companies and associations
The Coalition for Food Aid, which represents
16 nonprofit groups, also opposed it. While supporting the idea
of buying food in poor countries, said Ellen Levinson, the coalition's
lobbyist, its members favored a more limited pilot program paid
for only with additional appropriations, not money from the agency's
Ms. Levinson criticized the administration
for failing to spell out how its plan would work, and said a carefully
monitored pilot was needed to ensure that food bought in poor
countries was safe and that the purchases did not drive up food
prices for the poor. She also cautioned that food bought near
a crisis would not necessarily be quicker to arrive, noting that
the European Union has been very slow to release cash for food
in some cases.
But Oxfam, which accepts no direct American
food aid and is not part of the coalition, has actively supported
the administration's proposal. In testimony submitted to Congress,
it pointedly noted that the current system offered too many opportunities
"for a variety of private interests to skim off benefits
in the procurement, packaging, transportation and distribution
And CARE, the second largest distributor
of United States food aid and a member of the coalition, had a
change of heart. It has now given unconditional support to food
purchases in developing countries.
The food aid debate will flare again later
this year as global trade talks approach, with the European Union
proposing that rich countries give a growing portion of their
food aid as cash. But, for now, the administration's proposal
is going nowhere. Senator Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio, still
hopes Congress will ultimately allow up to 10 percent of food
aid to be spent in poor countries. "It's a question of trying
to save lives," he said.
But opposition remains strong. Bob Goodlatte,
a Virginia Republican who heads the House Agriculture Committee,
said even Mr. DeWine's modest compromise "would break a coalition
that has resulted in one of the most successful food aid programs
in world history."
In Canada this year, the politics of food
aid has unfolded in a starkly different way, with the leading
nonprofit group, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, and the Canadian
Federation of Agriculture, the country's main umbrella organization
of farm groups, supporting a sharp reduction of the amount of
food bought in Canada. "Canadian farmers are not going to
say you have to source food in Canada regardless of whether starving
people are waiting for it," said the federation's president,
Index of Website