U.S. is slashing world food aid contributions

Disasters, emergencies hit amid budget deficits

Resources diverted, delayed

Hardest-hit are programs of long-term development

December 19, 2004|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Crop failures in Afghanistan, conflict in Sudan and a half-dozen other humanitarian disasters have sharply increased demands on the United States' food aid program, forcing the American government to cancel food shipments and scale back donations to some of the world's neediest countries.

The United States historically uses its abundant agricultural riches to provide half, and sometimes more, of the aid needed to feed the world's hungry.

But a threefold increase in emergency food demands this year, a soaring U.S. deficit and tight budget restrictions are making it impossible for the United States to fulfill its aid commitments.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversees the distribution of most American food aid through its Food for Peace program, is wrestling with an estimated $650 million shortfall. To make up for the gap in funds, AID is diverting resources from long-term development food assistance programs, which address the health and food needs of millions of people suffering from chronic hunger.

Since last month, AID has canceled or delayed dozens of food orders placed by humanitarian agencies to support a long list of programs. Those include the feeding of orphans and vulnerable children, nutrition for AIDS patients and health care for mothers and infants.

"We tried not to hold back on everybody. We are trying to keep the pipeline intact," said Roger Winter, an AID assistant administrator for the bureau overseeing the Food for Peace program.

Winter said that because of a "substantial food aid shortfall," AID postponed paying for about 20 new development projects and delayed payments for some existing programs.

Although the food shipments might resume soon, he did not know whether there would be additional cancellations or delays because of the lack of funds.

Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, one of the world's largest distributors of food aid, anticipates that the cuts to its development programs will leave more than 1.5 million orphans, disabled and AIDS victims without food assistance. The sudden cutoff of AID support could also leave as many as 1.2 million children without schooling, more than 1.2 million mothers and infants without critical nutrition and about 1.6 million farmers without deliveries of farm tools.

So far, AID has canceled shipments of 12,860 metric tons of food destined for CRS development programs in Indonesia, Eritrea and Malawi. It delayed the delivery of 85,640 metric tons to a dozen emergency and non-emergency programs in Africa and South and Central America, CRS officials said.

"Millions of people will be affected by this," Ken Hackett, president of CRS, said in a statement read by an aide. "By taking away this safety net, we will be abandoning them."

Save the Children USA reports that the American cutbacks have delayed food shipments to Nicaragua. They have also forced Save the Children to put several development programs on hold in Africa and slash its food operations in Tajikistan, Central Asia, by 50 percent.

"I just returned from Angola, where drought has devastated many coastal communities," said Ina Schonberg, director of food security programs for Save the Children, in a statement. "Families are down to one meal a day. We've been told that additional food resources will not be available to help these families."

U.N. program affected

The United Nations World Food Program, which in the past has received more than 50 percent of its funds from the United States, is now bracing for unprecedented cuts in financial support for its non-emergency operations, according to a U.S. food aid official who did not wish to be named. It now is seeking donations from China, Russia and India, the official said.

In southern Africa, the World Food Program's appeal for $171 million to feed 2.8 million people has so far generated only $11.5 million in donations. Food stockpiles will begin running out next month in Lesotho, one of the hardest-hit countries with half a million people in need of food aid. No money has yet come from the United States, WFP officials said.

"There are less food aid resources in the United States, and there are huge demands because of Sudan. ... That's why we face the problem that we do. It's a much smaller cake to be divided," said Mike Sackett, World Food Program's regional director for southern Africa.

In relief and development work, financial support is always limited. Humanitarian agencies often face budget uncertainties or food supply delays because aid might be diverted in response to unanticipated disasters or because of a lack of donations. What makes this year's budget shortfall so serious, aid experts say, is its widespread impact on development projects and the fact there appears to be no relief in sight.

Budget constraints

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