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Washington is awash in rumors this week that the White House is planning major changes in the way the U.S. donates food to fight hunger in some of the world's poorest countries.
It has set off an emotional debate. Both sides say they are trying to save lives.
America's policies on food aid are singularly generous — and also unusually selfish. On the generous side, the U.S. spends roughly $1.5 billion every year to send food abroad, far more than any other country.
On the other hand, the rules for this program, known as Food for Peace, ensure that much of the money stays in American hands. Most of the food, which commonly includes wheat, corn and soy meal, and vegetable oil, has to be bought from U.S. farmers, processed here and delivered to its destination by U.S. shippers.
That eats up money and time. Andrew Natsios, who ran the U.S. Agency for International Development under President George W. Bush, says the results can be tragic. "I've run these operations, and I know that food aid often gets there after everyone's dead," he says.
Sometimes food is available for sale much closer to the disaster, Natsios says. If U.S. food aid money could be used to buy that food, instead of shipping it from the U.S., it could save lives.
A decade ago, Natsios started a campaign to reform Food for Peace. He pushed for a change that would allow up to a quarter of the program's budget to be distributed as cash that humanitarian groups could use to buy food wherever they needed it.
Among many of the groups that carry out food aid, Natsios' proposal did not go over well. When Natsios first announced it, at a meeting in Kansas City, he "was almost physically assaulted," he recalls.
It took a beating in Congress, too. It never got through the agriculture committees of Congress, which control the food aid budget.
In 2008, though, Natsios and the Bush administration were able to set up a couple of pilot programs that allow foreign purchases of food. Those programs now account for about a quarter of U.S. food aid, and according to independent reviews, they're working pretty well.
According to the Washington rumor mill, the Obama administration now wants to go even further.
Gawain Kripke, policy director for Oxfam America, an anti-poverty activist group, says it's an open secret that the White House is thinking of eliminating the current food aid program, which is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A new food aid program within the U.S. Agency for International Development would take its place. This program would distribute cash that humanitarian groups could use to buy food where it is most needed.
The Obama effort to reform food aid "looks like it will be more ambitious than what President Bush ever proposed, and more meaningful," Kripke says.
According to Kripke, this could be a really good thing. "We think the U.S. food aid program is quite broken and needs to be improved," he says. "It's wasteful for taxpayers and doesn't help nearly as many poor people as it could."
But there's already a wave of protest against it.
Leading the charge are some other humanitarian groups, such as International Relief and Development (IRD).
"We can't figure out what's going on," says Jeffrey Grieco, IRD's chief of public and government affairs.
There are a couple of reasons why these groups are upset. Some are worried that tampering with traditional food aid will lead to less funding because the agricultural lobby won't support the program anymore.
But there's another reason that's less well-known. Some humanitarian groups — including IRD — rely on traditional food aid to help fund their work in Third World countries.
Not all food aid goes to places suffering from famine. There's also nonemergency food aid. When that food arrives, in a wide variety of countries, it's turned over to nonprofit groups like IRD.
The way the system works, these groups sell that food on the local market and use the proceeds to pay for projects that help farmers or improve people's nutrition.
IRD's Grieco says this arrangement does a lot of good: "The reason why these programs are important to us is because these programs are working, and we're able to save lives."
Critics, including Oxfam America, call it a horribly inefficient way to pay for local development projects. According to some calculations, at least a third of the money is wasted.
But Grieco says this system has been reliable. By law, all food aid funding has to be used to fight hunger. Any new cash program, he says, might end up paying for lots of other things, depending on shifting political fashions in Washington. "If we remove the conditionalities about how the money should be spent, that money may never be available for those crises, at a key time when we need it," he says.
Some of these fears are still, at the moment, fears of the unknown. The Obama administration is expected to release the actual details of its food aid proposal next week.
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