Most major food aid donors, like the European Union, have officially opted to feed people in needy countries by means of a selection of response tools, such as cash or vouchers for food, but the US has remained the exception, and still largely ships food produced at home as aid.
The Barack Obama administration's hands are tied by domestic policies like the Farm Bill, which governs American food aid and is updated every five years, but it is making efforts to keep up with the rest of the donors.
"We are increasing our humanitarian 'tool kit' through cash for local and regional procurement that can support local markets and, in some cases, reach beneficiaries sooner," Ambassador William Garvelink, Deputy Coordinator for Development at the US government's Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative (GHFSI), told IRIN. The tool kit includes "voucher programmes, which means vulnerable households can purchase food directly in local markets".
The 2008 Farm Bill will only be updated in 2012, and "The Obama Administration has not yet communicated changes it may be seeking in the new legislation," said Garvelink.
Almost all food aid donated by the US is "tied" to domestic requirements for procurement, processing and shipping - it costs more than two dollars of US taxpayers' money to deliver one dollar's worth of food procured as in-kind food aid.
The problem is that "there isn't as strong a constituency out there lobbying for the cash ... as there is lobbying for tied, in-kind food aid," said Daniel Maxwell, an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in the US.
"It is clear that 'policy', as laid out in the Farm Bill, is not compatible with the Obama Administration's view of the US role in global food security," Maxwell said. "But there continues to be a strong lobby for in-kind food aid in the US, which makes a complete overhaul of US policy, as per the recent EC [European Commission] policy, less likely in the near future."
The George Bush administration, which preceded Obama's, attempted a partial reform of food aid when, for the first time, the 2008 Farm Bill freed some of the money to be used as cash for food purchases in recipient countries or regionally, instead of on in-kind produce shipped from the US.
|It is clear that 'policy', as laid out in the Farm Bill, is not compatible with the Obama Administration's view of the US role in global food security|
But the amount - US$60 million over four years – was a fraction of the $300 million Bush had sought for cash purchases in one fiscal year, and was to be spent on a pilot programme.
Garvelink maintained that "flexibility" of having the option to send home-grown food made it "least likely to have any detrimental impact on local markets" in poor countries.
The new strategy
Soon after taking office in early 2009, the Obama administration announced that the US, the world's largest provider of food aid, would focus on agricultural development in the countries it helped support, rather than having them remain recipients.
The US Department of Agriculture said improving global food security was a matter of national security, a change in mindset that came about after the global food crisis of 2007/08, when at least one government - Haiti in the nearby Caribbean - was toppled, and the number of hungry grew to a billion - a sixth of the world's population.
The Obama administration established the GHFSI, and announced a "government-wide" global food security strategy, to be coordinated by the GHFSI and the National Security Council Interagency Policy Committee on Agriculture and Food security.
Its emphasis on supporting agriculture to wean people off food aid was informed by the realization that supporting poor communities in the developing world often did not seem to have a long-term effect of enabling them to produce their own food.
The US government has spent an average of $300 million every year for the past five years on feeding the very poor - those living on less than fifty US cents a day - in Ethiopia, a GHFSI consultation document pointed out.
"Exclusion of the very poor ... from the agricultural sector hinders equitable growth throughout the developing world. Addressing these constraints directly will allow ... [them] to realize the potential of their labour and accelerate the expansion of rural growth," it maintained.
The proposed GHFSI approach to eradicating global hunger is based on principles adopted by the G8 - a group of eight of the world's richest countries - which met in L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009 to discuss food security.
The G8 strategy focuses on an agriculture-led growth, reduced undernutrition, increased impact of humanitarian assistance, investing in country-led plans, stronger strategic coordination - globally, regionally and locally - leveraging the benefits of multilateral institutions, and delivering on sustained and accountable commitment.
The GHFSI has identified a group of 20 countries, split into two categories, to be targeted in the 2011 fiscal year. Countries in Phase 1 will receive technical support and help with capacity building to develop investment plans, and include Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda and Zambia in Africa; Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal and Tajikistan in Asia; Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua in the Western Hemisphere.
Those in the second phase already have advanced food security plans in place, with good public and private sector capacity, and include Ghana, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal and Tanzania.
Weaknesses in strategy
However, a study by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent congressional watchdog, said the strategy was "vulnerable to weaknesses in funding data and risks associated" with an approach led by a host country.
Developing countries had weak capacity to absorb significant increases in donor funding of agriculture and food security, and to sustain projects on their own over time; shortage of expertise in agriculture and food security at relevant US agencies to strengthen capacity in developing countries; policy differences between the host country, donors and the US on agriculture development and food security.
Moreover, the US had 10 agencies involved in various food security initiatives, yet there was no single information database with the entire range of programmes and activities. This deprived decision-makers of pertinent information on costs and funding levels, and a "firm baseline against which to plan".
In its response the US administration said it supported the concept of a common database, but needed to weigh the cost of setting up such a system against the value it would provide; it hoped to "manage the risks" involved in an approach led by a host country, but noted that this also offered developing countries opportunities to reform their policies.
The nuts and bolts of the strategy are still being tinkered with. In a recent congressional update on the GHFSI, a former Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, and a former Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme, Catherine Bertini - now co-chairs of the Agriculture Task Force of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an influential think-tank - said the GHFSI should be led by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Maxwell of Tufts University commented: "I would imagine that if the GHFSI were led by USAID, it would keep the focus more on reducing hunger as an end in itself, and would therefore be a good idea."