Budget Slashing and Food Aid: Taking the Long View to Help the Hungry

Charles W. Elliott

The United States federal budget is in the news, and once again partisan U.S. political battles over the role of government, budget priorities, and fiscal policy place the world’s poor in the crosshairs. Often, behind the dry budgetary text are the cries of hungry children and the desperation of the poor.

How the richest nation in the world addresses the problem of hunger is not merely an obvious moral issue. Food security plays an important role in global stability and, therefore, our own national security. As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently said: “Our national security depends on feeding a growing world.” So does our domestic security. President John F. Kennedy wisely said: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” In the practice of giving, we serve even our own enlightened self-interest.

Many Americans imagine that the U.S. spends excessively on foreign aid, but the contrary is closer to the truth. U.S. foreign aid funding for food represents only 0.05% of the President’s 2013 federal budget. Policies governing food aid can be vastly improved by reforming the special interest rules that create unnecessary costs. Current rules require the export of food from preferred U.S. growers in place of purchasing food supplies from local farmers in developing countries. A recent report, “Saving Money and Lives: The Human Side of U.S. Food Aid Reform,” issued jointly by Oxfam America and the American Jewish World Service,  shows how this policy not only wastes money but costs human lives. According to the report, these special interest rules needlessly cost taxpayers more than $491 million. As an example, it evaluates the cost of food aid to Ethiopia: for the same amount we spend buying 2,200 tons of wheat from the U.S., we could purchase 5,400 tons of wheat locally. The report finds that “reformation of US regulations would allow us to respond to food crises up to 14 weeks faster and for the same price we can reach 17.1 million more people with lifesaving food aid.” (http://www.oxfamamerica.org/files/saving-money-and-lives-human-side-of-us-food-aid-reform.pdf)

The report also encourages us to take a long term look at the benefits of foreign aid and food security. If food aid went to buying food locally in developing countries, the purchasing power of that foreign aid would be more than doubled. Moreover, the income would go to local farmers in the regions we are trying to help, increasing economic security and reinvestment, thus reducing the need for additional aid in the long term.

We should ensure that our country’s foreign aid programs take the long view. One of the deepest criticisms of various budget plans centers on the proposed elimination of successful foreign aid programs that are directed toward long-term food security. One such program is “Feed the Future,” the signature Presidential food security program to fulfill the U.S. pledge at the 2009 G-8 summit to a global hunger and food security initiative. Beneficiary countries include four in which Buddhist Global Relief has supported hunger relief projects: Haiti, Malawi, Kenya, and Cambodia. The program’s two primary objectives are: (1) to accelerate inclusive agricultural sector growth, and (2) to improve the nutritional status in developing countries, particularly of women and children.

The long-term goal of the “Feed the Future” program is to make nations more self-reliant and less dependent on foreign aid. It would accomplish this by helping the poor of other countries to feed themselves by improving agricultural production, and in so doing, reducing dependency on foreign aid. External emergency food aid programs, while needed to avert short-term hunger and starvation, are no substitutes for these longer-term agricultural programs.

This is why Buddhist Global Relief supports programs supplying tools, seed, and skills to smallholder farmers in villages in some of the poorest parts of the world. Providing others with the ability to feed themselves not only effectively combats hunger but also helps promote other important human values such as self-reliance, social stability, community, and human dignity.

For more information about the “Feed the Future” program, see “The Obama Administration’s Feed the Future Initiative”, Congressional Research Service report, January 2011 (R41612). While primarily focusing on the “Feed the Future” program as a specific initiative, the report also provides an informative overview of the relationship between global food insecurity and global human health.

Charles W. Elliott is a lawyer practicing environmental, land use and human rights law. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Buddhist Global Relief.

2 responses to “Budget Slashing and Food Aid: Taking the Long View to Help the Hungry

  1. In my opinion, a Buddhist global relief first duty is to end the hunger of starving Buddhist children, to begin with, in very poor countries, with great majorities of Buddhists, as is the case of Laos, Vietnam, Kambodja, Burma, and to a certain extent also Sri Lanka and Thailand.

    • Charles W. Elliott

      Thank you for the comment. It is understandable that people might want to favor those with whom they more closely identify. Yet, Buddhist Global Relief’s project policies state: “BGR does not discriminate with regard to religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender. BGR’s guiding purpose is purely charitable, and thus we do not attempt to propagate Buddhism or to influence the religious beliefs of the beneficiaries.” While choices must always be made where resources are limited, if we systematically favor one specific group over another we enter a troublesome moral calculus. I am reminded of the beautiful teaching: “Enlightened beings are magnanimous givers, bestowing whatever they have with equanimity, without regret, without hoping for reward, without seeking honor, without coveting material benefits, but only to rescue and safeguard all living beings.” (Garland Sutra 21)