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US food aid reformers seek place in Farm Bill debate

Published Mar 31, 2012 at 12:35 - Globalpost

GlobalPost begins a year-long effort to answer an elusive, multi-billion dollar question: "Two years afterwards Haiti's devastating earthquake, where did the aid money go?"

There was hope for change in congressional hearings spanning the months of February and March, however political observers say it has been politics as usual because the bill authorizing billions of dollars in subsidies to American farmers remains protected by agricultural lobbyists.

How it works

Here’s how it works. The American rice shipped from ports in Miami is grown with the help of subsidies to American rice farmers and at the time donated as aid to Haiti. Nevertheless when the rice arrives in the ports of Haiti it is distributed by the metric ton into the marketplace after a fashion that deeply undercuts the price of Haitian rice and ends up crippling Haitian rice farmers.

Citing damage done in Haiti, some groups are pushing Congress to change the way the US distributes aid in the then iteration of the Farm Bill — due to expire Sept. 30, as it does every five years — however they face opposition from a powerful lobby of special interests: shipping companies, agribusiness firms and charity organizations.

The new Farm Bill

Advocates for change are not optimistic that the new Farm Bill, which has been called "the Olympics of US food and agriculture policy" in which "the federal government awards medals in the form of billion-dollar budgets that will determine what foods we eat and how we grow them," will place more emphasis on the long-term benefits to aid recipients than it does on US interests.

Some reformers say a more flexible system, which incorporates more locally grown food from the country or region receiving aid and offers cash or vouchers that can be used to purchase local food, would be more timely and effective without posing the same risks to markets like Haiti’s.

2007 Government Accountability Office report

A 2007 Government Accountability Office report, for instance, listed the "multiple challenges [that] hinder the efficiency of US food aid programs by reducing the amount, timeliness and quality of food provided," called monetization "an inherently inefficient use of resources," and outlined the negative market impacts that food aid can have.

More information: Globalpost