Food Aid as Public Diplomacy

by Jennifer Cupp

Food aid is a hot topic in the world of foreign policy these days. Though the U.S. Government’s Food for Peace program is housed in America’s international development agency, food aid is public diplomacy.

The Obama Administration’s 2014 budget request includes an overhaul of the current U.S. foreign food aid system. It largely replaces purchasing food aid from American farmers and transporting it on American ships with purchases closer to the crisis or distributing vouchers to families in need so they can buy food locally.  This will enable America to respond more flexibly and quickly to disasters, particularly in countries that are far away.

Although the number of disasters around the world is rising, America has decreased the amount of food aid it sends in times of crisis, in part due to increasing costs of purchasing U.S. commodities and shipping them from America on U.S.-flagged ships. The reformed system allows for more flexibility by freeing up about half of the food aid budget for other forms of food aid assistance.

It also ends monetization: the “inherently inefficient” system whereby private aid organizations sell U.S. food aid, once shipped abroad, in foreign markets and use the money to fund development projects. The Administration estimates that the reforms will allow food aid to get to people who need it 11 to 14 weeks faster at a savings of 25 to 50 percent. It also enables America to help 4 million more people each year.

That is not only fiscally responsible; it’s good public diplomacy.

There was a time when America’s system of buy-here, ship-there food aid worked. It helped American businesses and helped hungry people. But over time, it built up systems of dependency that hurt people and markets.

When U.S. food aid enters markets, it can distort them. The cheaper U.S. commodities undercut the prices local farmers receive for their locally grown produce, hurting their ability to compete in their own markets. Everyone suffers: Farmers stop farming and communities become more dependent on outside food aid. These communities are then less resilient when future crises hit—that is, they have a more difficult time recovering from disaster.

The people America helps rely in large part on the U.S. Government to decide if it has the money, and political will, to send aid. Then, they have to wait, and suffer, as the food ships from American ports to their location. At times, survival is based on how far one’s country is from America.

Buying food from farmers closer to where a crisis happens, or distributing vouchers, allows America to respond faster and more flexibly, choosing the best option for providing food aid to save lives. It supports local markets and struggling farmers rather than pushing them further into crisis and disrupting and distorting their markets.

Purchasing food aid locally and regionally (nearer to the crisis) and distributing vouchers will reach more people and support local markets. Delivering food aid in these forms will help communities bounce back more quickly from crises and, over time, reduce their need for food aid and build local and regional farmers’ ability to provide in times of need.

That’s good strategic communications, improving how others may perceive and receive America’s generosity.

Food aid reform, while not a silver bullet to solving global hunger or famine, is a positive step toward self-sufficiency in developing countries. The reforms proposed by the Obama Administration are smart, but only apply to FY2014.

America is the world’s largest donor of food aid and the last to reform the way it delivers food aid. If one objective of America’s foreign policy is public diplomacy, food aid needs to be reformed, for good.

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