The reforms would also end monetization, or the practice in which NGOs sell their leftover, American relief food in local markets in order to fund some of
their non-food programs, like clinics and school books. The GAO says monetization is wasteful -- it costs an average of 25 cents on every taxpayer dollar spent on food aid.
Instead, the 2014 budget proposal offers a
lump sum of $330 million
for programs that were formerly funded through monetization.
Many aid groups are heralding the overhaul as a step that would allow them greater flexibility in how they use their relief money. Not only will they save
by buying the less expensive, local food, many NGOs say the new system will prevent farmers in developing countries from being pushed out of their local
markets by an influx of monetization-food.
"If you were a Haitian rice farmer, you had no market for your rice in 2010," said Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service. "To buy food
regionally rather than shipping it overseas will double the impact of our dollars. Over time, these countries will become less and less dependent on our
Some organizations said they were hoping the budget plan would allow all -- rather than some -- food aid to be bought locally rather than shipped. But they
admitted that might be too ambitious for a food program that's been basically immutable since its inception in the 1950s.
"The absolute flexibility would be having no percentages specified, but the split recognizes that there is going to be a shift," said Helene Gayle,
president of CARE USA.
Of course, there's a good chance this part of the proposal will meet pushback in Congress. A bipartisan group of senators has already tried to block the change by arguing that
American farmers and shippers need all the help they can get in this economy.
"American agriculture is one of the few U.S. business sectors to produce a trade surplus, exporting $108 billion in farm goods in 2010," the senators wrote. "During this time of economic
distress, we should maintain support for the areas of our economy that are growing."
And the old way was also a form of soft diplomacy, with big canvas packages stamped with "From the American people" piled up in
devastated villages -- a positive externality that was also not lost on the
"It's definitely going to be a battle," said Kim Elliott, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, adding that past attempts to change the
system have resulted in drawn-out political feuds and, ultimately, nothing more than tiny pilot programs. "The whole point of our food aid budget is to
help foreigners first and foremost and help the U.S. in the long run. Is this really the right way to subsidize the maritime industry and the farmers?"
The maritime industry, as it happens, did get something out of the deal. The budget plan provides $25 million a year in subsidies "for militarily-useful vessels
and incentives to facilitate the retention of mariners." In other words, "sorry about the food aid, here's a small token to help the medicine go down."