A bold gesture

August 21, 2007

The United States is the most generous donor of food aid to the world's poor, but most of the help perversely goes to American farmers and shippers.

Congressional strings tied to the program mean that only about one-third of the aid reaches its purported targets - and in some cases hurts the people it is intended to help.

In a gesture of protest, CARE, the world's leading relief agency, is withdrawing from the program as of 2009, forsaking an estimated $45 million a year. Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, and other groups involved in such aid, should follow CARE's lead. Perhaps then Congress would forgo the tactic of disguising pork-barrel spending as humanitarian aid.

This dispute does not involve emergency food supplies sent in response to natural disasters, but to federal donations to organizations such as CARE that are intended to help finance their anti-poverty and development programs. The problem is that this aid, too, comes in the form of food, shipped to faraway destinations such as Africa and Bangladesh, where relief agencies sell it for cash.

This process is "an inherently inefficient use of resources," according to the General Accountability Office, which reported this spring that two-thirds of the money spent on such food aid by the government went for packing and shipping. Because these costs are rising, the amount of food delivered has declined by more than 50 percent over the past five years. At the other end, CARE estimates it loses 25 cents for each dollar of food converted into cash.

Nowhere would such an exercise make sense but in Congress, where instead of giving cash to relief agencies, lawmakers prefer to give it to American farmers for wheat and other commodities, and to U.S.-flagged merchant vessels for shipping.

Apart from this unconscionable waste of resources intended for the poor, CARE complains that selling American food overseas often undercuts struggling local farmers, making it all the more difficult for them to become self-sufficient.

President Bush proposed to convert the food aid program to 25 percent cash, and Catholic Relief Services, the second-largest recipient of so-called "monetized" food aid, is lobbying for more cash to accompany the commodities. Insiders say reform of the program will be put off, though, to preserve a bargaining chip in long-stalled trade negotiations. That rationale has the strong smell of a stall.

Food aid represents less than 3 percent of the $286 billion, five-year farm bill making its way through Congress. If that little bit is too much to give with no strings attached, then all the relief agencies should reject it.

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