WASHINGTON — The debate over whether the United States should continue to provide primarily in-kind international food assistance or shift a greater share of overall food assistance funding to cash-based programs was engaged during a June 24 hearing conducted by the House Committee on Agriculture.
Witnesses speaking on behalf of the Obama administration — Thomas H. Staal, acting assistant administrator of the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Philip Karsting, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service — pressed the case for more flexibility to provide cash-based assistance. Most committee members voiced support for in-kind food assistance as well as their concerns over the transparency, efficiency and oversight of current cash-based food aid initiatives.
The committee will take no immediate action, as the hearing was part of its initial discussions relating to drafting the 2019 farm bill.
Representative K. Michael Conaway of Texas, chairman of the agriculture committee, in his opening remarks, said, “Agricultural commodities grown by our farmers here at home have been a core component of U.S. international food aid programs for more than 60 years now. That said, I am aware of the continued calls for additional reform to these programs — Title II of the Food for Peace Act (F.F.P.A.) in particular. However, I think the balance struck in the most recent farm bill shows the agricultural community’s recognition of those concerns.”
Among the chief reforms to U.S. international food assistance programs instituted by the 2014 farm act was converting an expired local and regional purchase (L.R.P.) pilot program authorized under the 2008 farm act into a permanent program with authorized funding levels of $80 million annually for fiscal years 2014 through 2018. L.R.P. would enable USAID to purchase food abroad in areas and regions close to where emergencies break out with the aim of supplying food to those in need more quickly and at less cost than shipping supply from the United States.
At the same time, the new L.R.P. program was made subject to annual appropriations, and it was unfunded and unused in fiscal years 2014 and 2015.
The 2014 farm bill also allowed for greater flexibility in the use of F.F.P.A. 202(e) funds, including limited cash-based assistance in recipient countries where a Title II program was already operating. Mr. Staal and Mr. Karsting said this adjustment enabled USAID to reach 600,000 additional beneficiaries in its last fiscal year. Before the 2014 farm act, none of the F.F.P.A. Title II appropriations could be used to purchase foreign food.
Mr. Staal and Mr. Karsting pointed out in its fiscal year 2016 budget request, the Obama administration sought $20 million in funding for the L.R.P. program, but the agriculture appropriations bill tabled by the House Committee on Appropriations in June contained no funding for L.R.P.
The Obama administration also requested flexibility to use up to 25% of funding for F.F.P.A. Title II, the principal vehicle through which the federal government provides international food assistance, for local and regional purchase. This has been a perennial request by the Obama administration and the Bush administration, in the latter’s final years. The Appropriation Committee’s fiscal 2016 agricultural appropriations bill ignored that request.
“I fear it is shortsighted to charge ahead with efforts to transition Title II into a program virtually indistinguishable from the cash assistance programs already provided for by the Foreign Assistance Act,” Mr. Conaway said. “This is especially the case given the Government Accounting Office’s concerns with the integrity of those cash-based programs, including vulnerability to counterfeiting, diversion, fraud, and misuse.”
Mr. Conaway referred to the Emergency Food Security Program (E.F.S.P.), which is a cash-based food assistance program administered by USAID. The program was established in 2010 under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to provide grants to eligible organizations for rapid response to the highest priority emergency food needs. The program’s funding comes from USAID’s International Disaster Assistance account; i.e., the agriculture committee has no jurisdiction over E.F.S.P. The program was responsible for the provision of 275,194 tonnes of food valued at $578 million to 9.4 million people in 29 countries in fiscal year 2013. The program employs local and regional purchase (54% of the value of the 2013 program), food vouchers (39%) and cash transfers (8%) to accomplish this.
Mr. Staal pointed out that more than three-quarters of F.F.P.A. Title II base funding is for response to food emergencies. In fiscal year 2014, Title II provided food assistance to more than 20 million food-insecure people in 32 countries. E.F.S.P. funds providing for local and regional purchase of food as well as cash transfers and vouchers enabled USAID to reach an additional 14 million hungry people in that year.
Mr. Staal said response to the April 24 Nepal earthquake provided an example of how local and regional purchase and U.S. in-kind food aid may be utilized in concert.
“USAID has provided almost $7 million in emergency food assistance to Nepal,” Mr. Staal said. “On April 29, we provided an initial contribution of $2.5 million in IDA (international disaster assistance) funds to help the (United Nations) World Food Program jumpstart the response and buy 1,390 tonnes of regionally grown rice from India for 120,000 people for one month. U.S. in-kind food was also critical. While shipping U.S. food to Nepal, a landlocked country, would have taken months, we were able to draw down on pre-positioned U.S. food stocks valued at $4.4 million from our warehouse in Sri Lanka to meet ongoing needs for 150,000 people for one month.”
Mr. Staal said President Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposal that a quarter of the $1.4 billion requested for Title II be earmarked for flexible food assistance programming would allow USAID to reach an additional 2 million emergency beneficiaries due to an average costs savings of 33% by buying food locally and regionally compared with shipping similar food items from the United States.
“Even as we seek additional flexibility, the majority of our Title II request continues to be for U.S. in-kind food, which is still necessary and appropriate for many of our responses,” Mr. Staal said.
Mr. Karsting noted the administration’s proposal for a modest reform of the McGovern-Dole school feeding program. Under McGovern-Dole, U.S.-donated food is provided to schools to encourage child attendance while providing what for many children is the only full meal in the day.
“The proposal is to amend the definition of an eligible agricultural commodity so that meals can be enhanced with locally produced foods,” Mr. Karsting said. “Through procuring local food such as fruits and vegetables, F.A.S. will be able to offer nutritionally rich meals consistent with local diets, boost local farmer incomes and build supply chains. These enhancements will maximize community support and increase the probability that local governments take ownership and maintain school feeding programs.”
Mr. Karsting said the fiscal 2016 agriculture funding bill recently marked up by an appropriations subcommittee did not provide the flexibility in McGovern-Dole the administration sought.
Several committee members expressed concerns that cash-based food assistance was more vulnerable to corruption and diversion than in-kind food aid. They expressed both interest and skepticism as Mr. Staal and Mr. Karsting reviewed measures taken to ensure cash-based food assistance reaches only the intended beneficiaries.Representative Chris Gibson of New York drew on his experience with food assistance in Haiti. Mr. Gibson commanded the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat team during the opening month of emergency relief efforts in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that claimed about a quarter-million lives. Mr. Gibson’s brigade provided emergency in-kind food assistance to displaced survivors. He noted even with the efficiencies brought to the relief efforts by the U.S military and controls in place, there were incidences of fraud and corruption involving diversions of 100-lb bags of food. How much more vulnerable to diversion or corruption would be cash aid, he asked.