Philippines Disaster Rekindles Fight Over Food Aid Rules

Nov 15, 2013
Originally published on November 15, 2013 10:49 am

Emergency aid, including stocks of food, started arriving this week in cyclone-devastated areas of the Philippines; more is on the way.

The first wave of aid — high-energy biscuits designed to keep people alive when food is scarce — arrived via airlift. Huge shiploads of rice will be needed in the weeks and months to come. And exactly how the U.S. donates of that rice is a flashpoint in a long-running debate in Washington, D.C., about food aid.

The World Food Program has asked international donors for $88 million worth of food in all for the Philippines. The U.S., long the world's biggest source of humanitarian food donations, is expected to provide roughly 25 to 30 percent of that total. The U.S. has already moved to provide one chunk, worth $10 million.

By coincidence, the cyclone struck just as a final efforts began in Congress to re-write the rules for food aid, and the disaster immediately reignited the conversation about reforming them on Capitol Hill. Advocates of reform called it dramatic evidence that the U.S. should provide more aid in the form of cash, rather than shipping food from American ports.

The Philippine disaster is, in fact, exactly the sort of situation where it makes sense to send cash for food. There's plenty of rice for sale elsewhere in the Philippines or in neighboring countries, such as Thailand. Buying it locally saves precious time and money.

Of the $10 million U.S. contribution so far, in fact, about $8 million is cash. The rest, $2 million worth of rice, will be shipped from Sri Lanka. That rice was grown in the U.S., then stored in Sri Lanka in anticipation of emergencies in Asia.

Traditionally, the U.S. delivered its food aid "in-kind," as grain shipped from American ports. The amount of cash aid has been growing in recent years, but still is limited to about $300 million each year, roughly 20 percent of the total American food aid budget. Last year, much of the cash was used in Syria. (It's fortunate for the Philippines, in fact, that the U.S. government's fiscal year just started — there's plenty of cash available to spend.)

The rules for farm aid are part of the farm bill, an embattled piece of legislation the Congress has been struggling to pass for an eternity. (OK, for almost two years.) The Obama Administration proposed a drastic increase in funding for cash aid, but Congress balked, in part due to vigorous opposition from groups with a stake in shipping food abroad, including farmers and shippers.

The House, in its version of the farm bill, kept the current limits on cash aid. The Senate voted to increase the amount of cash food aid by about $45 million each year.

Right now, a conference committee of members from both houses of Congress is negotiating a final version of the bill. Those who want the U.S. to send more cash abroad, rather than ships filled with grain, are pushing hard in support of the Senate's version.

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As Typhoon Haiyan bore down on the Philippines, Congress was already debating the best way to send food aid to countries in need. The U.S. is the world's biggest source of humanitarian food aid. Some argue the U.S. should send more cash to help buy food, instead of ships loaded with rice or grain grown in America. And they say the disaster in the Philippines is a good example of why.

NPR's food and agriculture correspondent, Dan Charles, joined us for more. Good morning.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the situation there in the Philippines. How much aid is on its way?

CHARLES: So the first shipments that came in was airlifted in, and this was what they call high-energy biscuits. Think of it as kind of energy bars. But a lot more is on its way, often in the form of rice, the Philippines' major staple.

The World Food Program coordinates all this. They're putting out an appeal for $88 million worth of food. People are assuming the U.S. will end up providing maybe a quarter or a third of that total.

MONTAGNE: And how does it work, exactly? Does the U.S. send ships loaded with rice?

CHARLES: It's a combination of things. There are ships, actually, on there way from Sri Lanka to the Philippines right now. They're carrying Rice that was grown here in the U.S. that was pre-positioned in warehouses in Sri Lanka.

But the bigger part of the total is in cash. They're using that cash to buy food, like rice, in the Philippines or neighboring countries, and send it to where it's needed.

MONTAGNE: But that's not typical, right? I mean, doesn't most U.S. emergency aid - and also, non-emergency aid - doesn't that get shipped directly from the U.S.?

CHARLES: That's exactly right, in general. And this is where we get into this huge debate over how the program works and whether it could work better.

So, the situation in the Philippines is exactly where it makes sense to send cash, not shiploads of food. First of all, it gets there faster. You can get food more quickly. But second, there's a lot of rice available for sale in the Philippines and relatively close by, like, in Thailand.

But here's the thing: There's a limit on how much food aid the U.S. is actually allowed to send as cash. Right now, it's about $300 million, which is about 20 percent of total U.S. food aid.

The Obama administration wants to raise that limit a lot, so that it can react to situations like the Philippines. But also, in Syria, the U.S. is providing a lot of food aid to Syria as cash, because they can't send food directly to Syria. And Syria, in fact, used up a lot of the cash that the U.S. has available to buy food.

MONTAGNE: So how did it happen that there is this cash left over for the Philippines?

CHARLES: Well, one lucky thing for the Philippines was it's near the start of the U.S. fiscal year, so they had a fresh pot of cash to draw on. There's probably plenty available for what is required for the Philippines. But that leaves less for later in the year for similar disasters.

MONTAGNE: And, Dan, what are the chances that Congress will change the rules and make more food aid available as cash, as some propose that it do?

CHARLES: There are not going to be any drastic changes right away. The rules for this program are set in the Farm Bill, which is actually being negotiated on Capitol Hill, as we speak. And there was a push to change the rules and make more food ale available as cash, but it ran into strong political opposition. There was a lobbying effort by people who actually earn money from the program as it stands - farmers and also the shippers who send the food aid abroad.

The House kept the program exactly as it has been. The Senate increased the amount of cash for food aid by about $45 million each year.

The two sides are now negotiating. The people who support the Senate version are saying, look at the Philippines. This is why we need to provide more cash, to buy food closer to where it's needed.

MONTAGNE: NPR's food and agriculture correspondent, Dan Charles, thanks very much.

CHARLES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.