The battle over the future of US food aid

Samuel Oakford

Freelance journalist based in New York, and regular IRIN contributor

The head of the UN’s food aid agency recently surprised humanitarian analysts by claiming a direct link between food aid and preventing violent extremism.

WFP’s David Beasley, a nominee of President Donald Trump, said “we're the first line of offence and defence against extremism and terrorism”.

His comments, linked to recent developments in Iraq, appeared aimed at shoring up support for food aid in the US.

He is not alone: the White House, Congress, think tanks, aid agencies and special interest groups are all jostling for a say in the future of American food aid.

The Trump administration had already proposed a budget that would have closed two primary food aid programmes – Food for Peace and the McGovern-Dole food for education scheme.

However, Congress – urged across the board by interest groups, including aid organisations, shippers and commodity producers – looks unlikely to approve anything close to the White House’s proposal.

In late June, as congressional pushback on aid cuts became apparent, the White House reportedly considered an executive order requiring all American food aid be shipped on US-flagged vessels.

The protectionist move would have rolled back reforms meant to favour the developing world and save taxpayer dollars. Although Congress quashed the new order, the giant food aid operation continues to attract robust lobbying from the US shipping industry and farming interests.

“Trump was looking for an easy win, a way to say he got some American jobs, and get some union votes, but it was just a stupid idea,” said one American official with knowledge of the discussions.

But as quadrennial negotiations over the 2018 Farm Bill begin, how food aid will be treated by the Trump administration remains an open question.

Special interests

Faced with a White House that makes no secret of its intent to shake up aid spending, interest groups and institutions continue to sharpen their messages to ensure the spigot remains turned on.  

Shipping unions oppose Trump’s radical cuts. They would be “a disaster for America’s farmers and mariners, and would have a direct, damaging impact on American national security,” Brian Schoeneman, political and legislative director at Seafarers International Union, told representatives at a 7 June House hearing on the Farm Bill.

Farming groups support food aid as long as US commodities are involved. A representative of the wheat industry who testified at the hearing criticised US funding being used to procure food overseas, which he said would adversely impact American agriculture.

“International food aid programmes not only contribute jobs in the US agricultural sector, but also create American jobs in the manufacturing and maritime sectors,” said Michael Conaway, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee.

US NGOs agree that slashing food aid budgets would be catastrophic at a time of spiking food needs around the world. Eight recently formed the Global Emergency Response Coalition to bolster public support and joint fundraising to combat hunger.

Recent government reforms have introduced some flexibility – notably by allowing more spending on cheaper non-US food.

Untying any of the US food aid budget from special interests has been a lengthy process (click here for a timeline). But there has been progress. For instance, US contributions to WFP in cash, not in kind, increased from 12 percent of Washington’s funding in 2012 to 44 percent last year.

“In the 1960s the US was the big in-kind donor and that’s what we [the WFP] did then as an outfit – channel surplus food,” said Gerald Bourke, spokesperson for the UN agency. “But we have gotten more sophisticated in the way we assist, as have our donors – including the US.”

Moving away from in-kind food aid threatens the revenue of both shipping and farming industries.

Schoeneman, who spoke in June on behalf of industry lobby USA Maritime, urged Congress to “ignore the siren calls for ‘greater flexibility’ from the so-called ‘food aid reform advocates’.”

He said further reforms could upset carefully intertwined domestic interests that ensure food aid survives. Politically, the argument goes, food aid needs special interests to avoid being cut.

“For more than 60 years, this domestic support has shielded Food for Peace from harsh spending cuts and efforts to significantly change the program,” Schoeneman noted.

WFP’s Beasley is also assiduously working Washington. He has pressed Ivanka Trump for support and has presented a new justification for food aid to the debate in Washington, in a language no member of Congress can ignore: terrorism.

“If a family can’t feed their children, after two or three weeks they will turn to any available resource they can, and is usually extremism,” Beasley told Fox News in an interview about displaced civilians from Mosul.

His oddly worded assertion drew heavy criticism from some experts.

Analysts are concerned that characterising humanitarian aid to be at the service of a security agenda could undermine the impartiality, neutrality and independence of overall relief efforts, contravening humanitarian principles.

“What gets Republican congressional leaders to perk their ears up? Defence,” said the US aid official. “Once we take this to the place of ‘we need to feed people so they don’t blow us up’ I think we are taking it into a scary place and that’s not where it has to be.”

Cargo preference

Trump’s abandoned order tinkered with just one aspect of the interlocking special interests involved in US food aid. At least 50 percent of US-grown food aid must be shipped via US-flagged vessels (this financial year so far, it is 59 percent). The executive order would have put it back up to 100 percent, according to Reuters.

Cargo preference law promotes both national security and commercial interests: it is intended to ensure logistics capacity for the military and benefit the maritime industry. Only 120 vessels from some 40 companies are eligible to carry US food aid.

The benefits are unclear: a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study in 2015 found that the food aid cargo regulations have an “uncertain” impact on sealift capacity and the readiness of the US marine workforce.

But the regulations do increase costs and lengthen the time it takes to transport aid to where it’s needed. The GAO study found that cargo preference added 23 percent to the costs of food aid shipments, amounting to $107 million between 2011 and 2014.

Reform or retain?

Beasley, the WFP chief, inadvertently illustrated the inefficiencies of in-kind food aid during a trip to the Horn of Africa and Yemen when he posed with an American crew docked in Djibouti.

“40 days at sea all the way fm Portland, Oregon,” he tweeted, on a field trip that included visiting acutely malnourished children across the Red Sea in Yemen.

Meanwhile aid groups, want to double down, not reverse, the reforms of recent years.

“We support amendments that allow the most efficient and flexible methods of providing food assistance to help the most people in need,” said Kristin Wells, senior director for government relations at CARE USA: “we support eliminating the cargo preference quotas.”

By UN convention, WFP has been led by an American for many years, and some 40 percent of its income is from the US. Beasley, a former South Carolina governor, was proposed by the US administration and appointed in late March.

“Beasley has the job because they [the UN] thought he could secure funding,” said the US aid official. “He’s like the UN’s meal ticket.”

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