Should U.S. Have Monopoly on Food Sent Abroad to Aid Other Countries?

As the USAID announces a new budget proposal that reallocates food aid funding from American farmers to more global sources, Margaret Warner gets views from Ellen Levinson of the Alliance for Global Food Security and former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios.

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    And for more now, we turn to Andrew Natsios, former administrator of USAID in the George W. Bush administration and former vice president of World Vision, a faith-based NGO. He's now a professor at the George H.W. Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University. And Ellen Levinson, director of the Alliance for Global Food Security, made up primarily of NGOs that deliver food and other aid, she also heads a consulting firm whose clients include U.S. companies that produce food.

    Welcome to you both.

    Andrew Natsios, tell us more. What's the case for this change that the Obama administration wants to make?

    ANDREW NATSIOS, Former Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development: We actually proposed this change 10 years ago under President Bush. We proposed that 25 percent of the budget at the time of Title II be used under Food for Peace for local purchase of food aid.

    This is not a partisan issue. If President Obama and President Bush both support the same reform, you have to ask the question, who's opposed to it? Special interest groups are opposed to it. They killed the legislation then and they're trying to kill it now.

    The case for it is, one, it takes three to four months to ship food. I ran the program for four years, 25 years ago and then when I was AID administrator for five years. I know exactly how much time it takes, because that's one of — that's the subject I teach, actually, famines, war, and humanitarian assistance.

    And people die waiting for the food to arrive. I saw people die in Somalia waiting for the food to arrive. It's a long, complex process to ship food 7,000 miles from one part of the globe to the other part, particularly when a civil war is going on.

    When there's food surpluses locally, you ought to be able to buy the food locally. We're not saying all the food should be purchased locally. We think it depends on the circumstances. Those decisions should be made by Food for Peace officers and AID officers who have years of experience doing this.

    I might also add that 25 percent — 20 percent to 25 percent of the Food for Peace budget is the cost of ocean shipping. If you buy the food in the area, you don't have to pay those costs, you can buy more food.


    All right, let me get Ellen …


    We believe we can feed two million to four million more children as a result of these reforms.


    Let me get Ellen Levinson in on this.

    Your group opposes this change. Why? Well, how do you respond to what Mr. Natsios had to say?

    ELLEN LEVINSON, Alliance for Global Food Security: Well, thank you, Margaret.

    Actually, today, the United States is buying commodities overseas to deliver to people in need. It's giving out cash to people who are facing emergencies, including people who are refugees from Syria. So, there is authority to do it, and $375 million dollars was spent last year for that purpose.

    Our members who are nonprofit organizations working overseas agree with what Andrew just said, which is we should be able to do that in cases where it's a good idea and where we know we can control it and get good commodity.

    But no matter what, we're going to have to buy commodities from the United States, because there's not enough to buy locally and the commodities available are not the quality we need. So, no matter what, even under this proposal, we need American commodities.

    And, to us, we shouldn't be bypassing the law that says how to provide it. And, nowadays, unlike when Andrew was there, there is pre-positioning of commodities overseas near the areas where emergencies take place. And those commodities can get there even before local purchase.


    And what about the point that the General Accounting Office made in a couple of reports, that there is a lot of inefficiency, that the cost of shipping alone takes up a lot of the funds?


    Well, actually, it's not shipping. And this is where there's a lot of confusion.

    The greatest cost — and I think this makes a lot of sense if you think about where we're distributing the food, in the worst countries and difficult situations in the world — is the overland transportation. Ocean freight is about 12 percent at most.


    Back to you, Andrew Natsios.

    Another point — well, first of all, how would you respond to Ms. Levinson, and …


    Well, the GAO actually opposed virtually everything Ellen's just said, and has for 10 years.

    The fact that we're buying food locally is something that we did over her objection and her coalition's objection when there was no other alternative but to accept this, because the force of it was so powerful. They finally agreed to very modest reforms. We're trying to extend those reforms now.

    Ocean freight is not 12 percent. It's 20 percent of the cost. And there's an additional cost to go overland. Now, let's say, for example, in Southern Sudan, we have been providing food there because of the civil war that went on far 25 years that killed 2.5 million people. The World Food Program, which is the food organization of the United Nations, which is one of the best-run U.N. agencies, made agreements with local farmers in Uganda, which borders on Southern Sudan. It's an inland country. It has no ports.

    By shipping the food from the farms in Southern Uganda — Northern Uganda into Southern Sudan, we saved four months of time, and not only the cost of ocean shipping, but also overland shipping, because it was just a few hundred miles, as opposed to 1,000 miles.


    But am I right that — and let me just get Ellen Levinson back in here.

    Are you two disagreeing? Or, actually, is the proposal that the Obama administration came up with after a lot of pushback from many of your members and people in the industry, the pushback to the sort of early draft — it's now settled. It will be roughly 50-50. Is that acceptable to your group?


    No, that's not the point here.

    First of all, local purchase sounds wonderful. And I — you know, we strongly believe that we need to build the capacity of farmers in developing countries to produce sufficient amounts of food to meet their needs. And to us, that's where a lot of investment needs to go.

    However, they're not prepared at this point to provide the commodities. And local purchase could be distorting, which it has been in Uganda. Uganda wasn't a tradition major food producer of corn. They were asked to produce corn for emergency food aid. Twice in the last decade, small farmers lost all their incomes because that commodity wasn't being bought in two of the years, and they didn't have commercial markets.

    So, to us, the best thing to do is help people produce for commercial markets, also buy for food aid when they have it. But we do not think that that's like one against the other. We think we need both.


    OK, quick final — and, please, quick final answer from both of you, and that has to do with the constituency for these programs.

    The letters that were written to the president and to the Senate said, you know, part of the — keeping this Food for Peace program going or food aid going is that U.S. businesses and U.S. transportation companies have an interest.

    Briefly, Mr. Natsios, on that? Could you lose the constituency?


    Well, one, most of the NGOs now support President Obama and President Bush's position on this.

    Ellen's coalition is basically shipping companies and the longshoremen's union and American farm group interests. It is not the NGO community that supports the proposal. There may be three NGOs left that are taking her position.


    Let me give her the final word on that.


    I'm sorry. That's 14 organizations. You can look at our website. They're World Vision, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency. They're a range of faith-based organizations and development organizations that do vast amounts of humanitarian and development programs overseas.


    No they don't, Ellen. They do very small amounts.


    All right.


    The biggest NGOs all — who support food aid all support this proposal.


    OK, Mr. Natsios, I'm sorry. I have got to leave it there.


    OK. Thank you.


    Ellen Levinson, Andrew Natsios, thank you both.