WaPo on reforming food aid: Time to end the special-interest hostage-taking

The Obama administration is once again reviving a years-long and recurring effort to reform the way the United States delivers food aid abroad, but unfortunately, it’s a very uphill battle against some highly specially interested parties and the Congresspeople who represent them.

Right now, the federal government spends just shy of a couple billion dollars a year buying food from domestic farmers and then shipping and delivering said food to stricken areas abroad — hence why the American agribusiness lobby is so keen to protect the program in its current form. It’s really more of yet another subsidy program for farmers than anything else, but if we want to get more bang for our buck in administering relief to the needy, it would oftentimes be a lot more cost effective to instead use that money to purchase food from markets closer to the crisis spots. The proposal in President Obama’s budget would do away with the program’s requirement that most food be purchased directly from American producers and allow for more flexibility in using that money for maximum cost-effectiveness, and farmers are putting up a fight.

This really isn’t much of a Left versus Right issue — it’s probably better classified as a Specific Special Interests versus Everybody Else issue, as the Washington Post points out:

On April 5, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent a letter to the president arguing that his plan “would significantly reduce the amount of U.S. farm products our nation could provide to those in need around the world. It would also threaten our national security preparedness by reducing the domestic sealift capacity on which our U.S. military depends.” …

Mr. Connolly’s rationale is a familiar one — indeed, it was part of the Eisenhower administration’s original argument for food aid. But poor people abroad have been hostage to interest-group politics in the U.S. long enough. …

Perhaps it’s true that funding for foreign aid, always politically tenuous, has depended on greasing interest groups. But it’s also true that foreign aid depends on persuading taxpayers in general that their funds are being well spent. And there are more taxpayers than special interests.

What’s more, suddenly flooding foreign regions with subsidized food is tough on market stability in those areas — and developing nations agree.

New Delhi: Developing nations including India are pressing for reduction of trade distorting agriculture subsidies by the US and the EU, Parliament was informed on Monday. “India and other WTO Members have been seeking reduction in trade distorting domestic support of both these Members in the agriculture negotiations under the Doha Round of trade negotiations in the WTO,” minister of state for commerce D Purandeswari said in the Lok Sabha.

Unfortunately for food-aid efficiency, the American agribusiness sector rather enjoys the historic coddling they’ve received on so many levels from the federal government — and haven’t yet been wont to relinquish it.

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