May 28, 2013

Commentary - Food Aid Reform: Making Every Dollar Count

This post is part of a series produced by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its annual Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C., which was held on May 21st. For more information on the symposium, click here. Follow @globalagdev and #globalag on twitter to join the conversation.

By Helene D. Gayle

Helene D. Gayle is president and CEO of CARE USA

Today, almost 1 billion people are hungry. By 2050, world population will top 9 billion, only increasing the demand for food, fuel, and natural resources and straining our ability – and the planet’s ability – to feed and nourish all.   

Most of today’s hungry people are women and children in developing countries, living in rural areas with agriculture-based livelihoods. Volatile food prices, natural disasters and human conflict only make it more difficult to address chronic hunger and to empower poor, marginalized families to lift themselves out of poverty. And with climate change shifting the seasons, creating unpredictable rainfall patterns and more extreme weather poor smallholder farmers are increasingly challenged to feed and nourish themselves.

In the face of such emergencies, ensuring food and nutrition security requires a new framework that is comprehensive, effective, coordinated and efficient. The challenge we face is an opportunity for the US to lead, and President Obama’s food aid reform proposal demonstrates that leadership.

U.S. food aid has been critical in helping more than 3 billion people in over 150 countries. Food aid saves lives, helps people recover from crises, and addresses chronic poverty and malnutrition. Unfortunately, humanitarian needs and the scope of food crises like the famine in the Horn of Africa continue to expand, while many countries, including the US, face increasing budget constraints.

Current US international food aid programs rely on shipping US commodities to developing countries for distribution, potentially undermining the very farmers we seek to help. Alternatively, food could be purchased for sale or local distribution – generating resources for local farmers and development programs, all while fostering sustainable markets.

President Obama’s food aid reform proposal eliminates the highly inefficient practice of monetization, a practice CARE chose to stop in 2006. With more emergency food being purchased locally—closer to the crisis—these reforms will allow life-saving assistance reach an estimated 2 to 4 million more people annually without increasing spending.  Additionally, the President’s proposal provides USAID the flexibility to take action more efficiently and effectively. With the right tools at the right time, we can respond to crises today—and use our aid dollars to build resilience that helps avoid crises tomorrow. 

There is still a vital role for US commodities in places where food is not available or places where purchasing food locally would disrupt markets. However, the US’ response must be flexible when addressing emergencies, chronic hunger and undernutrition – our tools and programs must put first the needs of the farmers and hungry populations we seek to help.

Food aid reform is one piece of ensuring the most effective and efficient US response to hunger and undernutrition. But a comprehensive approach means responding to emergency needs and ensuring hungry families can feed and nourish themselves. It means ensuring poor farmers have access to markets, economic opportunities, healthy natural resources, and tools to lift themselves out of poverty. It means investing in women – the majority of the world’s smallholder farmers – who can create a ripple effect that helps lift their entire community out of poverty. It means creating a comprehensive approach that addresses the social and political inequalities that hold people in poverty.

Hunger and malnutrition can be defeated, but our success depends on sustained investment, a comprehensive approach, and a commitment to equity. It’s time for renewed United States leadership on global food and nutrition security that is sustainable, flexible and equitable. To help ensure the long-term success of our efforts, we must confront the threats to our planet’s ability to support the 1 billion hungry of today and the 9 billion people of 2050.

Helene D. Gayle is president and CEO of CARE USA, a leading international humanitarian organization with approximately 10,000 staff whose poverty fighting programs reached 122 million people last year in 84 countries. Since joining CARE in 2006, Dr. Gayle has led efforts to reinforce CARE’s commitment to empowering girls and women to bring lasting change to poor communities. Under her leadership, CARE has strengthened its focus on long term impact, increased policy and advocacy efforts and deepened connections between poverty and the environment. Gayle has leveraged the power of CARE’s corporate and NGO partners to significantly expand CARE’s reach across the globe. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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