Global Policy Studies & International Security Health & Social Policy Philanthropy & Non-Profit Organizations

Overcoming the Status Quo in Food Aid: Coalition Building at Bread for the World

Photo Credit: Todd Post/Bread for the World

First in a series by Steven Damiano (LBJ MGPS Graduate) covering his internship at Bread for the World Institute.

In the policy world, we often assume that if we use strong analysis to produce smart policy recommendations, legislators will see the benefits of our ideas and implement them. However, the reality is far more complex and good ideas, even ones that are coupled with a strong moral imperative, can struggle to gain traction. This is where coalition building, research, and advocacy become crucial.

This summer I interned at the Bread for the World Institute, the research arm of Bread for the World – a Christian, anti-hunger advocacy organization. Bread for the World lobbies the U.S. government to implement policies aimed at reducing hunger and malnutrition, both at home and abroad. The organization focuses on advocacy rather than program implementation and produces research for U.S. policymakers on mechanisms that are meant to reduce food insecurity. Since the organization relies on its network of church supporters for funding, it has wide freedom to support policies that best combat hunger without the need to appeal to corporate donors, shareholders, or political parties.

Yet Bread for the World confronts a complex web of opposing interest groups as it lobbies the U.S. government to change its current, glaringly inefficient approach to food aid. As the largest food aid provider in the world, the U.S. government procures the majority of donated food by purchasing grains from American farmers. It then contracts American cargo ships to deliver the food aid to developing countries. By buying agriculture commodities within the U.S., rather than from local markets in developing countries, the U.S. government distorts the food markets within those countries: supply is held artificially high, prices are kept down, and local food markets experience stunted growth. The end result is that a smaller amount of people are brought out of hunger compared to alternative approaches that rely on local purchasing.

As with all status quos, inefficiency is preserved by interest groups that benefit from this arrangement, including American farmers, the U.S. shipping industry, and NGOs that implement food aid programs. The shipping lobby, in particular, is notorious for its support of the current food aid system, effectively threatening to turn Congress against food aid if the U.S. government moves towards local and regional procurement practices. The strength of these interest groups and the market distortions they protect necessitate advocacy organizations like Bread for the World. In turn, Bread for the World relies on its network of passionate advocates to inform Congressmen about these weaknesses inherent to the current U.S. food aid system.

Indeed, coalition building is crucial to the organization’s success. For Americans to support anti-hunger programs abroad, they first need to believe that the U.S. must play an active role in the world. Hence, Bread for the World is a member of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which supports the idea of an America that is engaged in the world with strong diplomacy. Provided that Americans come to support increased foreign aid spending, U.S. foreign assistance agencies also need to have the freedom to spend assistance funds more effectively. For example, Congress currently funds much of USAID’s budget through earmarks. As a result, USAID often caters to the the demands in Washington at the expense of programs that actually match the needs of a developing country.

However, improving the fight against hunger depends on more than just fixing food aid. In addition to implementing more regional purchasing and limiting the impact of earmarks, the U.S. government must help developing countries take reformative action on their own. A sustainable solution ultimately hinges on a boost in the agricultural productivity of the country itself. Since, by extension, eliminating hunger also requires transforming economies, policy analysts at the Bread for the World Institute analyze the effectiveness of a wide variety of foreign assistance programs, ranging from programs funded through the McGovern-Dole bill to USAID capacity building programs. Bread for the World also promotes developing countries’ ownership over aid by participating in the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, which lobbies Congress to reform spending and evaluates the impact of its foreign aid.

Other sensible policy reform can help transform the U.S. food system domestically. For example, U.S. healthcare providers have historically played a limited role in fighting food insecurity, treating the symptoms rather than the source of hunger and malnutrition. But if the healthcare industry united with anti-hunger advocates to develop holistic approaches to fighting hunger, the U.S would have a powerful coalition seeking to ensure Americans have access to healthy food.  The 2016 Hunger Report will help build this coalition by showing health care providers and anti-hunger advocates how closely their interests overlap.

Nonetheless, Bread for the World faces an uphill battle in reforming the status quo for food aid both domestically and abroad, even in spite of its rare combination of smart policy recommendations and moral imperatives. Good ideas aside, the work of myself and others at Bread for the World ultimately hinges on the strength, innovation, and resolve of the people who join in support of the mission.

Edited by Jon Brandt

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