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Feed the Future: Improving the current food aid framework June 2, 2010

Posted by Rebecca Williams in News.
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For decades the U.S. government has been providing emergency food aid in an effort to tackle hunger caused by famine or drought.  At the same time, the US has also been providing longer-term agricultural assistance as an avenue to help spur industrial and economic growth. These important efforts have remained separate, however, unlinked in strategy, planning, or coordination thereby reducing aid effectiveness and impact.

To address this issue, the Obama Administration launched the Feed the Future (FTF) initiative, essentially an interagency planning process designed to strategically coordinate and align the (often purely reactive) hunger and food aid programs with longer-term agricultural development in target countries.[1] FTF is also part of a collaborative global effort centered on country-owned and agriculture-led processes to improve food security.

Conceptually, this is a huge step forward.  Attacking the root causes of global hunger through a planned and integrated government-wide approach has a much better shot at reducing chronic malnutrition and poverty than simply responding to the latest heartbreaking headlines.  This approach may also help avoid the negative consequences of imported food aid on local market development.

The FTF initiative also represents the importance the Obama Administration has placed on food security within U.S. foreign aid. (Food security even made an appearance in the 2010 National Security Strategy.)  High-level support is crucial to sustaining the long-term commitment needed to address growing worldwide malnutrition, especially given budgetary constraints.

There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, organizational challenges.  Multiple U.S. agencies and departments have food security-related activities and coordination remains a real issue because of varying mandates and missions as well as simple organization challenges.[2]

For example, USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), created to advance U.S. agricultural exports, is now providing experts in large numbers to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Haiti to provide agricultural development assistance.  While coordination is increasing in specific countries, the Secretary of State does not have full operational authority over the planning and budgets of all food-security programs, especially those programs funded outside the International Affairs (Function 150) budget.

The FTF initiative requires a U.S. Global Hunger and Food Security Coordinator (staffed with two deputies, for development and diplomacy) to provide strategic policy and budget direction, taking the lead on interagency coordination.  It is unclear to whom the position would report, where it would reside (State, USAID, USDA), or whether a current official would be dual-hatted.  To date no one has been officially appointed as Coordinator, though the two deputies have been selected.

Moreover, there is a dearth of comprehensive data related to food security.  According to a GAO report, there is currently no single information database that complies comprehensively data on the entire range of global security programs and activities across the U.S. government.   Addressing this gap will be an important first task for the Coordinator, the Director of Foreign Assistance, and OMB.

Equally as important, the increased importance being placed on food security has not yet integrated the technical expertise housed in one agency into another’s policy and planning phases.  It is unclear how the FTF would ensure a role for USAID and USDA experts in policy guidance and budgets in independent agencies such as the MCC which have some food security programs.    The future, long-term role of USDA’s FAS and how it relates to the traditional assistance programs provided by USAID is also unclear.

Finally, the bedrock of U.S. food aid programs remains unchanged.  USDA’s P.L. 480 and McGovern-Dole provide U.S. agricultural commodities to developing countries for humanitarian relief.  Even though local and regional purchases would be significantly cheaper, these programs are beholden to current law which mandates that most food aid commodities be purchased in the United States and shipped abroad.  Farm subsidies and trade barriers help the U.S. farmer, yet the overall effectiveness of U.S. aid flows is diminished as a result.  The FTF does not challenge these policies.

Despite these challenges, food security is worth the fight.  Strong institutional frameworks help turn good ideas into operational policies and, perhaps most importantly, into action.  Something we can all appreciate.


[1] The 20 Feed the Future focus countries are: Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Tajikistan in Asia; Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia in Africa; and Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua in Latin America.

[2] These include: State, USDA, USAID, the Export-Import Bank, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Peace Corps, African Development Foundation, Department of Commerce, DOD, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Labor, US Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Department of Treasury.

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