It’s hard to keep up with the give and take of U.S. politics in the fight over the Farm Bill, the approximately $300 billion, five-year plan covering all food and agriculture programs in the country. As the U.S. Congress continues to hammer out details on the bill, there is no guarantee that President Bush will sign it into law. He has consistently argued that Congress has failed to bring down the ceiling on many agriculture subsidies, especially in a time when U.S. farmers – and the agribusiness corporations that earn most of the payouts – are profiting from high world food prices.
In a recent move to cut the cost of the farm bill, the U.S. Congress lowered spending on the Dole-McGovern International Food for Education program to a mere $60 million for the coming year, a drastic drop from the $780 million five-year plan previously proposed by the House. As a story in the Washington Post points out, the program – named after Senators Robert Dole and George McGovern – spent $91 million in 2005 and provided 118,000 tons of food to 3.4 million children in developing countries around the world. In all, McGovern-Dole accounts for about 4 percent of all U.S. food aid funding.
But, is it a good program?
Dole and McGovern think so. In an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, they argue:
For just a few cents a day per child, the McGovern-Dole Program has made a critical difference in the lives of children and communities worldwide, promoted American values in the most positive terms, and helped achieve U.S. foreign policy and national security goals. By providing meals to children who attend school in the poorest countries, the program increases attendance rates and student productivity and gives hope to a new generation of impoverished children around the world. The impact on young girls is particularly important. As their school attendance increases, they marry later and birthrates are reduced.
What do others say? For the past five years, the McGovern-Dole program has spent $91 million annually, 85 percent of those funds for distributing food directly while the remaining 15 percent has been allowed for monetization, a program allowing certain U.S.-based NGOs to sell a portion of food aid in foreign markets to pay for development projects. In short, monetization is controversial. Europeans argue that it allows the U.S. government to circumvent export subsidy rules by allowing subsidized crops – wheat, corn, rice – to be sold abroad. More damning (in my mind, at least) is that monetization may work against local traders and producers, who must compete in the market with international development organizations. We don’t know for sure because monetization is very loosely managed by USAID and USDA, who do not track date on the revenues these NGOs make from selling commodities abroad. This, along with other bureaucratic shortcomings, has lead the Government Accounting Office to refer to it as “inherently inefficient use of resources” reducing the effectiveness of alleviating hunger.
As a food-for-education program, McGovern-Dole began in 2002 as an enticement for children to stay in school. It is estimated that 300 million children around the world face chronic malnourishment and many of those children do not attend school. In 2002, GAO analyzed the efficacy of these programs, and first noted the difficult environment they face to: 1) provide important nutrients (hand in hand with clean water and proper sanitation facilities) for children in poor areas; and, 2) create a facilitative learning environment for these kids, which means having adequately trained teachers, proper texts and learning materials and proper facilities which are near enough to most families.
Thus, GAO pointed out that these programs should target at-risk communities with a holistic approach, not attempt a blanket coverage of an entire country with low school enrollment, like, say, Burkina Faso.
The one problem facing food-for-education programs is sustainability. To be truly successful, they must have the buy-in from local communities, parents – who decide whether to send their children to school – and the governments, who must reflect on proper school reforms necessary to make education either more affordable or relevant to rural students. Problem #1: food-for-education programs are expensive, and don’t readily produce results, making governments leery of picking up the tab. The big question: Should education ministries pick up feeding students at the expense of educating others? Most would likely say no.
In the end, it appears the program was less sustainable in the United States than it was abroad. While everyone laments the problem of business interests and pork projects controlling the farm bill, no one has offered a practical solution. In the short term, the death-by-strangulation of McGovern-Dole may be bad for children in places like Burkina Faso. However, it may force the entire political establishment to re-think America’s funky attempts at modernizing food aid.