The White House unveiled its proposal Wednesday for drastic changes in government programs that donate food to fight hunger abroad — and surprised no one.
As we reported last week, rumors of such an overhaul had been circulating for weeks, arousing both hope and anger among organizations involved in global anti-hunger programs.
The Obama administration wants to increase sharply the share of food aid that the U.S. provides in the form of cash, rather than through food commodities that are bought in the United States and shipped abroad. Humanitarian groups could use that cash to buy food wherever it can be found most cheaply and quickly.
In addition, the U.S. would end the awkward and much-criticized practice known as "monetization." This essentially uses food as a way to transfer cash. The government buys commodities in the U.S. and ships them abroad, only to sell them on local markets in order to fund local nutrition and agricultural development projects. Critics of monetization call it a highly inefficient way to fund such projects.
The change that may matter most for the proposal's chances of success, though, is purely bureaucratic. The Obama administration wants foreign food aid to be funded through the U.S. Agency for International Development instead of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This change is more than symbolic. For one thing, the agriculture committees of the U.S. Congress would lose authority over these programs — a prospect that is unlikely to please those committees and will certainly complicate the prospects for this reform on Capitol Hill.
In addition, what people think of this bureaucratic switcheroo seems to depend a great deal on their opinion of these two agencies.
Supporters of the Obama administration's proposal have no love for the USDA. They see it as a knee-jerk defender of domestic farmers, hopelessly out-of-touch when it comes to fighting hunger abroad.
Defenders of the current system, meanwhile, see USAID as a lightweight agency that continually revises its programs to fit the latest political fashion in Washington. They point out, for instance, that USAID's new flagship program in agricultural development, called Feed the Future, is active in a relatively small number of countries, most of which are friendly to the U.S. Anti-hunger programs funded through traditional monetized food aid are active in twice as many countries.