WASHINGTON, June 12, 2013 – The pitched battle over foreign aid reform landed at the door of the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, where questions of American diplomacy took center stage.
Those have been a main concern for agricultural interests, who argue that shifting toward local procurement and away from the shipping of American commodities will hurt American farmers and ranchers and leave aid recipients without an idea of where their food comes from.
That would be significant in places like Afghanistan and Indonesia, where U.S. aid efforts have stemmed the tide of anti-American sentiment and proved itself a valuable national security tool.
Citing increases in U.S. approval ratings in areas where food aid has been distributed, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., wondered whether aid would have the same impact if just money were shipped overseas.
During times of crisis, “where American food going to disaster victims – and everybody knows it’s American food, there’s an American flag on the bag – we get a response that is helpful,” Sherman said. “Are we going to see an American flag on the bag if the food inside isn’t grown in America?”
Testimony by Andrew Natsios, a former administrator of USAID during the George W. Bush Administration, and Dan Glickman, secretary of agriculture under President Clinton, emphasized the reform proposed by the Obama Administration would not force USAID to go, in the words of Glickman, “cold turkey – all cash.”
Rather, 55% of all aid would have to come in the form of American commodities, leaving the remaining 45% to be flexibly distributed as commodities, food vouchers or checks.
“In my judgment, the overwhelming percentage of the aid is still going to be in the form of commodities because of humanitarian needs,” Glickman said, in an attempt to quell the fears of lawmakers worried aid changes could take a bite out of agricultural and shipping profits.
“But at the same time, commodities are not suitable for everybody, everyplace, and we should not be statutorily prevented from offering other ways of providing assistance,” he said.
In his prepared testimony, Glickman noted that food aid now accounts for a half a percentage of farm income.
But Natsios acknowledged that the American flag bags might be used less than they are now, which would have an affect on American diplomacy. But he said that is beside the point.
“No one would argue we should only provide aid if we get credit for it.,” he said. “We don’t kill children in order to get better public diplomacy.”
The American flag bags have been an important part of the foreign aid fight. In a February letter the president, agricultural, maritime and nonprofit groups called food aid in bags “bearing the U.S. flag and stamped as ‘From the American People”… [ambassadors] of our nation’s goodwill, which can help address the root causes of instability.”