Protecting vital food aid programs

In Bangladesh, PCI is a partner with ACDI/VOCA in implementing “PROgram for Strengthening Households Access to Resources” (PROSHAR), a PL 480-funded Title II program which targets vulnerable coastal populations in south-western Bangladesh.  The focus of PCI’s work is to improve the health and nutrition of women and children, as well as to strengthen the resiliency of communities to shocks and their long term impact.  Sabina Yesmin and her family benefit tremendously from this project.  Sabina joined a PROSHAR care group – a mother-to-mother peer support group – in February 2012 when her son, Sabbir, was three months old.  When Sabbir began losing weight at six months of age, her care group peers as well as the growth monitoring educator (all trained by the project) came to her aid and taught her recuperative nutritional strategies and proper complimentary feeding practices.  Thanks to their assistance, Sabbir resumed a normal pattern of weight gain.  When the same thing happened when Sabbir was eleven months old, Sabina once again received help and her child again began growing normally.

For the past fifty years, PCI has recognized the inextricable linkages between nutrition, food security, and health, and has focused especially on those who are most vulnerable to malnutrition, namely children and pregnant and lactating women.  Undernutrition experienced during a child’s first 1,000 days of life (i.e. from conception through two years of age) too often results in irreversible and devastating brain damage and stunted growth.  To prevent malnutrition in pregnant and lactating women, PCI educates mothers on the need to consume a diverse diet and to take micronutrient supplements (e.g. iron, vitamin A, folic acid, etc.).  PCI also provides supplemental food rations for mothers and children when possible and appropriate, and implements recuperative strategies to provide treatment to children and women who are undernourished.  These critical programs save lives, build resiliency, and foster the development of entire communities.  And yet these programs – specifically USAID Title II programs and USDA’s Food for Progress programs – are currently under threat, facing not just funding cuts, but possible elimination from the U.S. Government’s foreign assistance budget.

PCI has joined more than 85 PVO, farming, shipping, and labor groups to urge President Barack Obama and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to ensure full funding for these programs.  The letter signed by PCI and the other organizations last week argued:

“Growing, manufacturing, bagging, shipping and transporting nutritious U.S. food creates jobs and economic activity here at home, provides support for our U.S. Merchant Marine – essential to our national defense sealift capability – and sustains a robust domestic constituency for these programs not easily replicated in alternative foreign aid programs.”

A bipartisan group of 21 senators also sent a letter last week to the Obama administration, urging it to maintain funding for Food for Peace because “it is important to American farmers, shippers, and developing nations around the world.”  They went on to state:

“American agriculture is one of the few U.S. business sectors to produce a trade surplus, exporting $108 billion in farm goods in 2010.  During this time of economic distress, we should maintain support for the areas of our economy that are growing.  In addition to providing American commodities directly to those without access to food, Food for Peace supports a variety of developmental programs implemented by U.S. faith-based organizations designed to help end the cycle of poverty.”

PCI has USAID-funded Title II programs in Bangladesh, Guatemala, Liberia and Malawi.  In Malawi, for example, PCI is a partner with CRS and is focused on: preventing malnutrition and childhood illnesses; improving the nutritional status of children; strengthening livelihood capacities by improving agricultural production for small holder farmers; creating safety nets by establishing village savings and loan groups; and building local capacity to prevent, mitigate and respond to shocks.  PCI has also been extensively involved with USDA’s Food for Progress (FFPr) programs, implementing a total of eight FFPr programs around the world.  In Nicaragua, for example, PCI facilitated a comprehensive agribusiness development program in seven municipalities that have among the highest poverty and malnutrition levels in the country.  PCI’s programs have reached more than 18,000 farmers and helped to create or strengthen 38 rural cooperatives and agribusiness partner institutions.  The results of this work have been remarkable, such as increasing family income between 11% and 146%, and dramatically reducing post-harvest losses from 56% to an insignificant 0.2%.

For Sabina in Bangladesh, the agricultural training she has received from the PROSHAR program has transformed her family’s life.  When the PROSHAR’s livelihood team started farmer field school activities in her area, Sabina joined to improve her family’s small garden.  She learned how to grow a wide variety of nutritious vegetables, such as red amaranth, spinach, tomatoes and eggplant.  Sabbina is not only able to meet the nutritional needs of her family now, but she is also able to earn income from surplus produce by selling it to neighbors.  After sharing her gardening experiences in her care group, Sabina’s peers were also motivated to try it for themselves.  Today all of the women in Sabina’s group are growing food to feed their families and sell for income.

Critics of these programs argue that buying U.S. commodities and shipping them overseas is costly and inefficient, and that cash assistance would be cheaper and provide more help to low income countries, particularly if the needed food was bought in nearby countries.  Such comparisons obfuscate the careful planning that goes into food aid programs and the proven track records of Food for Peace and Food for Progress.  These arguments do not accurately characterize the way that U.S. food aid works, that the U.S. has a variety of tools for addressing food needs, and that U.S. food aid provides multiple benefits to local economies and poor communities.  Local-regional purchase definitely has an important role to play in food aid, but cannot take the place of Food for Peace for three reasons.  First, there are complexities when buying locally, such as food safety, the quality of products, a lack of infrastructure for local food aid systems, and cost and volume limitations – all of which will take significant investment and time to change.  Second, as European countries experienced, converting food aid programs into cash programs would effectively end food aid programs as cash grants are the first thing to be cut in difficult economic times.  And third, reducing the transformational aid that our country provides weakens the U.S.’s goodwill and national security interests overseas.  Secretary of State John Kerry stated on February 20th at the University of Virginia that foreign aid “suffers from a lack of domestic constituency.”  He gave sound advice about how programs like Title II and Food for Progress benefit our country’s economic, national security, and strength, stating:

“First, it’s about telling the story of how we stand up for American jobs and businesses – pretty practical, pretty straightforward, and pretty real on a day-to-day basis.  And second, it’s about how we stand up for our American values, something that has always distinguished America.”

As PCI has witnessed first-hand in countless programs, food aid works!  It transforms lives and brings hope to the most vulnerable places and people on earth, empowering communities to become food secure by strengthening their resiliency to disasters and economic shocks, teaching them how to ensure the nutritional security and health of their children and themselves, and giving them the tools to increase their agricultural productivity and incomes.  Focusing on the cheapest delivery of commodities is not reform; it is backsliding.  Let’s not let all of our lessons learned and success stories be ignored, and the critical assistance provided to Sabina’s family and millions more like her across the world be eliminated.  Please join PCI in loudly and clearly declaring that USAID Food for Peace and USDA Food for Progress programs are critical, resilience-building programs that should not be eliminated and/or replaced with mere cash grants!