WASHINGTON, April 10, 2013 – President Obama’s budget is making waves in the foreign aid world, where his Wednesday proposal to move toward local procurement and away from monetization has drawn both praise and criticism. But insiders say a departure from the status quo would be a tough sell in Congress.

Though food aid reformers believe sending money directly to developing countries is the most efficient way to help the most people, others insist that providing American commodities directly to hungry people helps American businesses and serves an important element of American diplomacy.

In February, over 70 nonprofit, farm, commodity, labor and other organizations sent a letter to the president protesting shift in his budget – only a rumor at that point. The groups cited monetization program’s economic benefits at home, but also their “strong track record of reducing child malnutrition and increasing incomes and food supplies for very poor and vulnerable populations.

But the budget, released Wednesday, would not change Food for Peace and Food for Progress programs as dramatically as some of those groups had feared. On Tuesday, Ellen Levinson of the Alliance for Global Food Security told reporters the administration had “listened to the criticisms of their food aid reform plan and made some modifications compared to the original plan.” Though $1 billion has been shifted to an emergency assistance fund, 55% of that money will be used to buy American commodities and send them overseas.

At an event hosted yesterday by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Global Food Security Project, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said he was pleased with the increased “flexibility” granted by the president’s budget plan. “As more efficient tools surfaced and best practices evolved, we’ve learned that the current approach to food aid can become—at times—an impediment to its very own mission,” he said.

Shah called attention to a 2011 GAO report that called the monetization process “inherently inefficient,” and found that it resulted in the loss of $219 million over three years.

Shah took the time, however, to praise American agriculture’s role in the foreign aid program. “The truth is that there is a deep and abiding sense of community and compassion that connects a small rural town in America to a refugee camp on the border of Syria or Somalia,” he said.

Still, the reform will have a tough time getting by Congress. In February, a letter sent to President Obama and signed by 21 bipartisan lawmakers, including Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Subcommittee Ranking Member Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Ranking Member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., protested the change.

“American agriculture is one of the few U.S. business sectors to produce a trade surplus, exporting $108 in farm goods in 2010,” the senators wrote. “During this time of economic distress, we should maintain support for the areas of our economy that are growing.”

Taking into the account the delicate politics of the matter, former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., a panelist during the CSIS event, called reform a “great idea, but it’s just not the right time.”

Foreign aid reform’s “time has come,” said Helene Gayle, CEO of CARE USA, also at the CSIS event. She praised the plan’s flexibility, which allows the country to “use (its) resources efficiently at an important time.” But she qualified her statement: “Politics aside – though we can never put politics aside.”


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