From Kenya to Washington: Who's to Blame for Wasted Food Aid?

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Special interest lobbyists are working to impose rules that require food aid to be purchased from preferred growers in the U.S.

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Abdoulai Mohamed is a 60-year-old small businessman in Turkana, Kenya. Abdoulai did not follow the traditional pastoralist way of life as generations of his family had done before. Instead, he took out a loan and set up one of the first shops in his community, selling basic food staples like corn and flour.

When drought spread across the region in 2011, Abdoulai and his wife, Asinyen, gave food to their customers on credit, allowing many poor farmers to borrow what they needed to get by. As the crisis worsened some struggled to settle these debts and it was difficult to keep the store's shelves stocked without paying customers.

But thanks to a program funded in part by USAID, which helps make food available by assisting local businesses and ensuring food supply chains are intact, many of these outstanding balances were repaid, and families were able to buy the food they needed. This program has helped more than 5,500 drought-stricken families survive, keeping the local economy alive with food flowing from local farmers through local businesses and into poor households.

The hard truth is that if we want our aid programs to work, we are going to have to stop treating them like corporate welfare.

Abdoulai's story is one of community perseverance, but it is also an untold story about the effective role U.S. assistance and Washington can play. In a sense, Washington and the Horn of Africa are very much alike. From afar it is hard to know that there are any success stories to be told. In the Horn, where millions have been impacted by famine and conflict, news reports consistently highlight the suffering and sorrow. From Washington, we hear only the tales of endless dysfunction and partisan warfare.

Surely both places have problems. But as I've witnessed first-hand, the view from up close is much more complex. I've seen unimaginable ingenuity and generosity as communities work together to tackle crises and find hope in disaster. Because of the support of the American people and the hard work of a few unsung heroes, Abdoulai and Asinyen got the tools and opportunity to forge their own solutions. Now they and many others are weathering this crisis and have real hope for their children to pursue a better future.

Sadly, Washington does not always work this way. Too often our aid programs suffer from the same insider games by D.C. operators that Americans complain about. Take the U.S. food aid program. Helping hungry people during food crises is an essential part of U.S. foreign policy; it reduces instability around the world and protects the most vulnerable communities from catastrophe.

But right now special interest lobbyists are working to impose rules and regulations that benefit themselves, cost lives, and waste taxpayer dollars. Under our current program a group of lobbyists and trade organizations, representing businesses and industries that stand to profit from aid dollars, have convinced Congress to write the rules to work in their favor.

These rules require that food aid be purchased from preferred growers in the U.S. and shipped from the U.S. on preferred ships instead of finding the best prices and sources of food that will save the most lives at the lowest cost. This red-tape is not about empowering people like Abdullah to help themselves, it's about big business cashing in. The result is that less food gets to hungry people when they need it. Because of these rules up to 32 cents of every $1 spent on food aid goes to waste.

Some will hear this and say that the U.S. should get out of the aid business altogether. They are wrong. America is better than that. We cannot turn a blind eye on the millions of people whose lives are on the line and expect to live in a safe and stable world.

But we do need to heed the lessons of our own successes. The hard truth is that if we want our aid programs to work, we are going to have to stop treating them like corporate welfare. We need to cut the red tape that prevents aid agencies from buying food aid locally and regionally from farmers in developing countries. This will require courage from legislators to stand-up to powerful lobbyists and keep their hands out of the food-aid cookie jar.

This month Congress will take up the issue as part of negotiations over the Farm Bill. That will be their opportunity to do what Abdoulai and Asinyen have done for Kenya and prove that our perceptions about Washington are wrong.

Image: M. Cornelius/Shutterstock.

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Raymond C. Offenheiser is the president of Oxfam America, a nonprofit development and relief agency. He has also directed programs for Save the Children Federation in Mexico and for the Inter-American Foundation in Brazil and Colombia.

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