FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The United States is the world's single-largest food aid donor, but there are intermediaries, agribusinesses and shipping companies which by law have to be American, and they consume a good part of the U.S. food aid dollar.
The General Accountability Office says two-thirds of that U.S. food aid dollar goes toward administrative overhead. That's led critics of the $1.2 billion program to argue it helps private contractors more than the hungry.
Last year, one of the largest private food aid charities, Atlanta-based CARE, announced it would stop accepting U.S. food donations in 2009.
CECILY BRYANT, CARE Malawi: We felt very strongly that the inefficiency and the waste that was happening throughout the current system just had to be addressed. And if we didn't take a stand and try and make a change, then this would just continue.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Care's Cecily Bryant argues it would be much more efficient if U.S. assistance came directly in the form of cash. The money could be used to train farmers and to buy grain locally, cutting delivery cost and time, while developing markets for African farmers.
In fact, many aid agencies generate cash to run such programs by selling these American commodities to African wholesalers and traders, a practice called monetization.
MALAWI CITIZEN (through translator): This is where we grow soy beans. You need 75 centimeters between ridges for the highest yields.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: On this day, CARE extension agents used test plots to demonstrate new crop varieties and types, like soy beans, a high-protein crop that is growing in popularity here in Malawi.
CECILY BRYANT: Food alone isn't going to change anything in the long run. We're working with farmers to teach them to harvest greater yields, to be able to market surplus once they reach that level.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Despite myriad problems with poor infrastructure and uneven distribution that leave many hungry, there have been overall grain surpluses. Rains have been good for two years, and subsidies have helped farmers buy seeds and fertilizers.
President Bingu Mutharika says Malawi must lessen its dependence on charity.
BINGU MUTHARIKA, president of Malawi: We now have had two successive years of surplus. And the year I took over, we were told Malawi was poor and that we must go to the rest of the world and beg that we are poor and the world will feel sorry for us. I said, "No, that's not the way globalization works."
People will come to Malawi if there are investment opportunities, if we are helping ourselves, and they want to be part of that success story. Nobody, nobody wants to be part a failing story.
FOOD AGENCY WORKER: So are they looking forward to a good harvest this year?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Indeed, the United Nations food aid agency, the World Food Programme, is now using cash it gets from non-U.S. donors to increase local purchases of grain. But for many farmers, the concept of a surplus is new, one they almost fear jinxing.
FOOD AGENCY WORKER: OK, so they don't anticipate having a surplus this year?
TRANSLATOR: No, he's indicating that they are not expecting surplus.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: These farmers weren't sure how to answer a simple question from an agency better known for giving away rather than buying food.
FOOD AGENCY WORKER: Let them understand that we're not seeing where we can deliver food to. We're looking to buy food. So, I mean, I understand to a degree they're used to -- they're used to assessment missions asking them if they are hungry.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Despite such local difficulties, country director Domenico Scalpelli says the World Food Programme bought 90,000 tons of grain from Malawi last year.
DOMENICO SCALPELLI, World Food Programme: That's a huge amount of food, and it's the largest amount we've bought ever in Malawi. A lot of it was not only for Malawi, but a lot of it also went to Zimbabwe, it went to Democratic Republic of Congo.
We bought food even for West Africa. And that was because the price was the best at the time and the quality was good, competed internationally.Part of the philosophy behind it is to try and bring up local farmers and traders to a point where they can, in fact, compete internationally.