As the rainy season arrived and the planting began in East Africa at the end of March, drought and hunger continued to creep across West Africa. The African Paradox of feast and famine was forming again.
The U.S. response of food aid was quick off the mark, as it often is. But this time there appeared to be a greater nimbleness, illustrating the evolving shift in the way the U.S. delivers its food aid.
The World Food Program announced that it had received more than $100 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide urgent food assistance to some 9 million people across the Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad. Of that contribution, $28 million was in cash to purchase food from African farmers and to support programs in which the impacted population receives vouchers to buy their food on local markets rather than getting handouts of food from a distant land. The U.S. donation also included an initial consignment of nearly 7,500 metric tons of food allocated from stocks pre-positioned in strategic locations in or near Africa, which would reduce the delivery time from four months to four weeks. Additional food supplies would be shipped from the U.S. to arrive in August when the hunger is expected to be at its peak.
Allan Jury, the WFP’s director of U.S. relations, hailed Washington’s “multi-pronged approach” to the crisis in the Sahel.
“The cash contributions and use of pre-positioned stocks enables us to deliver quick, life-saving assistance in the short-term with significant in-kind food assistance arriving just at the peak of the crisis when the needs are greatest,” he said. This combination punch against hunger is a departure from traditional U.S. food aid practice, and a welcome development. For decades, the U.S. government mandated that all food aid be American-grown crops transported on American-flagged ships. Even though these requirements added several months to the food aid deliveries and doubled the cost, any change to a more flexible system that included cash purchases of food nearer to the stricken areas was vehemently opposed by entrenched interest groups intent on making sure that American farmers, commodity processors and shippers – along with the hungry recipients -- received maximum benefit of the aid. It was just a couple of years ago, as budget pressures rose and evidence mounted that more lives could be saved with a more flexible approach to food aid, that the U.S. government began a pilot project to include cash purchases abroad in addition to the food shipments from home.
Much of that evidence was coming from the WFP’s own local purchase program called Purchase for Progress. This program encouraged African farmers to grow more and better-quality crops and to practice better harvesting and storing methods. As the WFP bought their maize and beans and peas and lentils, the farmers found incentive to further increase production and quality. Purchase for Progress gained steam under WFP executive director Josette Sheeran and should continue to build under her successor, Ertharin Cousin.
The U.S. has for many years been the WFP’s largest donor, with the vast bulk of its contributions being in U.S. grown commodities. Now the U.S. has also become one of the largest cash contributors to the WFP. For 2012, the US contribution to the WFP has reached the equivalent of $365 million, with $36 million in cash.
But now the progress to a quicker, cheaper, more efficient, greater life-saving food aid program is under threat by the budget slashers who continue to see foreign aid, and particularly food aid, as a prime target. The 2013 budget passed by the House would eliminate the one program, the President’s Feed the Future initiative, that is hastening food aid reform.
The explanation of the budget cutters is rife with misconceptions. They insist it is better to reduce costs in the current food aid programs than to start new initiatives like Feed the Future. Lowering the cost of food aid would mean more local purchase, which spares the huge expense of shipping. In order for the WFP and other hunger relief groups to do more local purchase, African farmers need to be growing more food. And that is a main aim of Feed the Future’s agricultural development goals. It is a simple progression, a crisp one-two punch against the deficit: Grow more in Africa, ship less from America.
Speaking of the World Food Program, check out this video marking the WFP’s 50th anniversary:
It features an eclectic mix: Bill Gates, rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, and me…among others.