Since the Eisenhower administration, the United States generally has done food aid in a certain way: grow and pack it in this country, ship it across the world on U.S.-flagged ships, then deliver it through American charities, which sell a portion of the food to fund their other programs. Not coincidentally, the system has been popular with American agribusinesses, shipping companies and maritime unions.
But for the last decade, aid reformers have asked: Why couldn’t a portion of food aid be purchased regionally — in Africa, say, rather than the American Midwest — or given directly to individuals in vouchers so they can buy in (and strengthen) local agriculture markets? This has not, understandably, been popular with American agribusinesses, shipping companies and maritime unions. But Congress granted the George W. Bush administration limited flexibility to experiment with more direct forms of assistance.
The food aid debate is no longer theoretical. In Syria, the delivery of commodities is often impossible. “To get anything into opposition-controlled areas,” Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told me, “you are shot at by helicopter gunships.” So the available, cash-based aid is devoted to this crisis. But commodities, by congressional mandate, must still comprise 75 percent of overall American food aid. As a result, cash-based aid in post-famine Somalia — where commodity delivery is also difficult — must be cut. About 150,000 Somali children will lose services. “We will literally remove vulnerable kids who have been on the program,” says Shah. “That’s hard to do.”