Save lives, save money: fix food aid

Save lives, save money: fix food aid


Natural disasters, economic crises (like food price or oil price spikes) or conflict can all result in vulnerable populations suddenly being plunged into acute hunger. Since 2011, the UN’s annual total humanitarian funding requirements have more than doubled from $7.4 to $16.4 billion dollars . There is more need for humanitarian aid than ever before, but the life-saving resources to meet this need have not kept up. We need every dollar to count.

In 2013, the US spent $1.7 billion to reach 42.6 million people in 56 countries with targeted interventions for people who are unable to produce enough food or do not have the resources obtain it, or “food aid”. This makes the US the largest food aid donor by far; however recent studies, including a new report by George Mason University, have shown with smart policy reforms the U.S. can protect millions more people suffering from acute hunger, reach them faster and do so at a lower cost.

So how can we help feed millions more people with simple policy changes?

There are three core issues:

Local and Regional Procurement (LRP)

Most emergency food aid funding at present must be used for purchase, shipping, and distribution of U.S. commodities; however there are other tools that can be much more efficient at reaching more people faster, and helping to break the cycle of poverty and hunger.

LRP, or buying commodities from markets near the emergency, can give local farmers an income (boosting their resilience against future emergencies) and allow food to get to hungry people faster, all while costing less than shipping food across an ocean. A study by Cornell University found that LRP and other programs could get food to people in critical need 11 to 14 weeks faster. For those in critical need, 14 weeks is too long to wait.

Cash transfers and food vouchers can, in addition, provide the organizations delivering food aid with the ability to source locally. With increased flexibility in how to use funding, the U.S. government can tailor its response to food emergencies to reach more people faster.

Agricultural Cargo Preference

“Cargo preference” is the percentage of U.S.-sourced food aid that is required to be shipped on privately-owned, U.S.-flagged carriers. Cargo preference adds unnecessary shipping costs; for example, it has been estimated that an increase of 25% (which has been suggested) would so increase transportation costs that 2 million fewer people would receive life-saving emergency food aid.


The practice of monetization allows groups that provide emergency assistance to sell excess commodities on local markets to finance non-emergency development programs. This practice has been found to be an economically inefficient means of supporting development activities, rather than simply paying for them directly.

The Government Accountability Office has found that for every $1 spent on buying agricultural commodities, 24 cents are lost, on average, when organizations sell those commodities on the market.

When millions of lives are on the line, we can’t afford to waste a single cent. We need to reform U.S. food aid.

There are several proposals that will be brought up in Congress this year to make real progress on food aid reform. We need to tell Congress that right now, when the needs are higher than ever – that a system that reaches less people, less quickly, and at a higher cost is morally and economically unacceptable. Food aid needs adequate funding, and the U.S. government needs the flexibility to respond to unique crises using the tools that will save the most lives. Let’s fix food aid in 2015.


Development Initiatives based on UN OCHA, FTS, OCHA overviews of Global Humanitarian Response and OCHA press statements

Lentz, E., Barrett, C., Gomez, M. 2013. The Timeliness and Cost-Effectiveness of the Local and Regional Procurement of Food Aid. World Development.

GAO. 2011. Funding Development Projects through the Purchase, Shipment, and Sale of U.S. Commodities Is Inefficient and Can Cause Adverse Market Impacts. Washington DC.



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