THE UNITED States has a proud tradition of supplying food aid to hungry people around the world, whether their plight is due to chronic poverty or sudden natural disaster. Still, food aid was never a purely altruistic exercise. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower kicked off the program that would become known as Food for Peace by saying that it would “lay the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands.” In the six decades since, global food aid has generated sales for U.S. farmers, business for U.S.-flagged cargo vessels and jobs for U.S. seamen.
In this sense, the United States is no different from many countries that use foreign assistance to bolster domestic industries. But, over time, U.S. food aid has tilted too far in that direction, and too many dollars ostensibly devoted to helping the poor overseas are instead subsidizing special interests in this country.
Fortunately, President Obama’s budget for fiscal 2014 includes a plan to modernize and reform the $1.5 billion U.S. food aid program. Mr. Obama would end “monetization,” the inefficient practice whereby the federal government buys commodities from U.S. farmers and ships them abroad to governments and nongovernmental organizations, which sell them in the local market and use the proceeds for development projects.
Obviously, it would be a lot more cost-effective if the United States simply spent the cash directly on development, rather than diverting resources to food purchases and shipping — which, by law, must involve relatively expensive U.S.-flagged vessels. The Government Accountability Office found that monetization reduces the amount of money available to development by an average of about 25 cents per dollar.
Furthermore, “monetized” U.S. food amounts to subsidized competition for farmers in needy areas. In some cases, it would make more sense for the United States to buy food closer to where it’s needed, thus saving shipping time and expense and, potentially, stimulating agricultural investment in the developing world. The Obama proposal would facilitate change in this regard as well, allowing U.S. aid agencies to buy up to 45 percent of relief commodities from non-U.S. sources.
Mr. Obama’s sensible suggestions have bipartisan support in Congress, which is not surprising, since his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush, embraced similar ideas. In a joint news release, Reps. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pronounced themselves “encouraged” by Mr. Obama’s proposal.
Alas, those who benefit from the status quo are pushing back. Merchant-marine unions warn that less work for U.S. vessels will atrophy sealift capability that soldiers need in wartime — even though most U.S. troops are coming home from Afghanistan. Twenty-one senators from farm and coastal states — including Maryland’s Barbara A. Mikulski (D) — argued in a letter to the White House that the plan could undermine agriculture, “one of the few U.S. business sectors to produce a trade surplus.” But U.S. farmers are already heavily subsidized and prospering. They need less federal support, not more.
The people who have a legitimate claim on the American taxpayer’s aid are the hungry millions overseas. Mr. Obama is right to want to supply it as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.