Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Beckmann: Make Foreign Aid Work

Bread President David Beckmann appeared Sunday on PBS's Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly to talk about foreign aid and why it needs to be administered more effectively. Read the full interview or check out these highlights:

On the fight against hunger
There has been dramatic progress against hunger, poverty, and disease in the world. In 1970, probably about one-third of the people in developing countries were hungry and undernourished. That’s now down to about one-fifth. The big story is the religious story. I think God is moving in our time to reduce hunger, poverty, and disease, and part of that story is assistance from the rich countries.

The ‘3 D’s’
The D’s are defense, diplomacy and development -- the three legs of our foreign policy. But the defense leg is real long, the diplomacy leg is kind of stubby, and the development leg is tiny. Both President Bush and President Obama were clear that development -- helping people around the world make a better life for themselves – is the right thing to do but also in the long-term contributes to our diplomacy and our defense.

There are three big agencies that administer U.S. development assistance. There are 60 offices of government that have foreign assistance programs. … We just have a clutter of U.S. agencies trying to do the job. We need one strong agency responsible for development, related to the State Department, and then we also need better coordination across the 60 offices.

On effective aid
When aid is focused on reducing poverty or promoting development, it has a pretty good record of success. The main problem has been our mixed motives. Lots of times we think the same dollar is going to buy an Air Force base and help poor people...

Right now we are putting a lot of development money toward aid in Afghanistan, but … at the end of the day, the purpose of that money is not to help poor people. The primary reason is to fight terrorism. [Defense] Secretary Gates … wants strong civilian agencies to be able to carry out our development assistance programs so that our military can focus on what they do. They don’t do a good job reducing poverty.

The need for reform
Our foreign assistance … does a lot of good, but we can get a lot more impact out of those tax dollars. It’s not just the aid; it’s the coordination of aid with trade and diplomatic policies. For example, we charge Bangladesh more in tariffs for the things they import into the United States than we give them in aid, so we are taking with one hand what we give with the other.

For every dollar we appropriate for food aid, more than 50 cents goes to transportation and administration. With the high price of oil now, to ship food from Iowa or Kansas to Ethiopia is a very expensive proposition. Often the best way to get food in a place where you need food aid, a refugee camp, is to find food locally or in a nearby country. Buy the food from farmers there.

But we end up shipping food produced here. It’s partly because there is a small group of shipping companies that are U.S.-flagged companies, and the law says they get to ship that food. They aren’t efficient companies, but they are well-positioned to lobby Congress. It’s a scandal. If they were just taking 20 percent I could live with it, but now it’s gone to more than 50 percent of the cost of food aid. Bread is campaigning to get that system changed.

On trade
Bread has worked on trade policies toward Africa and Haiti to try to open up opportunities for poor countries to export into the United States. It’s good business for the United States. Usually trade and investment tends to benefit better-off people first. So if you really are trying to lift the least of these, you often need some aid money to complement it. Really poor countries have managed to achieve rapid economic growth, partly through aid, partly through trade opportunities. In fact, places like India, China, Korea, Indonesia -- these are places I want to put some of my 401(k) money.

The future
The amount of money we are spending on programs helping to reduce poverty in developing countries has tripled between 2000 and 2010. The experience of 9/11 made us aware that we are interconnected, and it’s not smart to neglect misery in far-off places. I’m very encouraged that the United States is more committed to reducing poverty now, and if you talk to voters, they want to do more. We have changed U.S. politics for the better on this issue, and I expect further change.


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