Michael Gerson

The only thing more difficult than reforming an unsuccessful program is reforming a relatively successful one. U.S.-grown food aid has saved countless lives. But it can't be accused of efficiency. The commodity mandate delays delivery and raises costs -- more than 16 percent of program expenses go to ocean shipping. So the Obama administration has proposed a major reform of American food aid, which would free up nearly half the program for local and regional purchasing. It would also end the selling, or "monetization," of food by charities -- a practice that wastes about a quarter of every dollar and can depress food prices and crowd out local farmers.

The administration is not proposing to end commodity purchases, just scale them back. But it estimates this shift would allow the program to provide help 11 to 14 weeks faster, with a cost savings of 25 percent to 50 percent. Entirely through efficiency, America could serve 4 million additional people.

There will, no doubt, be considerable political resistance, but perhaps less than there used to be. American farmers -- flush from strong agricultural prices and ethanol demand -- are far less economically dependent on food aid exports than they once were.

The shipping industry is a different matter. The cost to move food aid has tripled over the last few years. Companies running U.S.-flag vessels can charge a premium, since a congressional mandate makes the federal government a captive buyer. But a company doesn't have to be American to run ships under the American flag. By far the largest beneficiary in the current system is a Danish conglomerate.

Efficiency in foreign aid should appeal to all members of Congress, but to Republicans most of all. The current food aid system often undermines agricultural markets and encourages rent-seeking. A Democratic administration is proposing a reform that employs vouchers and is opposed by unions. Even in a farm state, this should be a compelling case.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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