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CNN’s 'Why Won’t Washington Work' Spotlights Food-Aid Inefficiencies

11468858775_8d91cb856b_zBread for the World has worked for many years to call for better ways to get life-saving food to hungry people around the globe through U.S. food aid. Now major media outlets are catching on to the problem as well.   

A recent report on CNN highlights the inefficiencies of the current system and the costs—both in financial terms and in lives put at risk by the inflexibility. As part of a series “Why Won’t Washington Work,” CNN chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper spent time with Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) discussing food aid. Current requirements that food largely has to be purchased in the United States and then shipped on U.S. cargo carriers means that 65 percent of the money for the aid program is spent on shipping and business costs, rather than food.

This requirement also delays food delivery by months - and at critical times. “It actually takes us about three months to buy food here, and ship it, and get it to, say, the Philippines after a disaster,” Shah told CNN. “It takes two to three months to get that done.”

Shah estimates that if there were flexibility with the program and food could be purchased locally, closer to where the need is—as Bread’s Offering of Letters calls for this year—the program could feed 8 million to 10 million more people, and within days, versus months.

But political connections, rather than humanitarian concerns, are one of the things obstructing these changes to the program in Congress. Shipping companies and unions, who benefit financially from the program as it is, are opposed to any change in the current system. And they wield clout in Congress in a way that hungry people do not: According to the Center for Public Integrity, the two leading maritime unions gave more than three quarters of a million dollars to House members in the 2012 election cycle. As CNN noted, members of Congress receiving that money, Republicans and Democrats both, voted against Shah's efforts to reform the program, 83 to 29.

As CNN’s report notes, U.S. jobs and companies are important priorities. But that’s not what this money for life-saving food aid is meant for, not where it should be directed.

Even “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” knows that the shipping companies are not really the most vulnerable among us.

Photo: Lutheran Development Service distributes food to people affected by drought in Swaziland in 2004. Many distributions of U.S.food-aid items are carried out by private relief and development organizations, many of them supported by U.S. churches. (Stephen H. Padre/Bread for the World)

 

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