If you want to make an American feel warm and cuddly, say Food for Peace. The words conjure up images of sacks of U.S.-donated wheat fighting famine abroad, while the recipients show grateful, pro-American sentiments.
It is true that a small part of the $1.5 billion a year that Washington spends on the Food for Peace program relieves hunger - when it manages to reach the needy, which is not too often.Much more often, unfortunately, American food aid is spread around the world for politico-military purposes, sometimes causing more harm than good.
Here are examples of the taxpayers' food money in action, as administered by five federal bureaucracies with their differing goals:
- The United States sends so much grain to Egypt, a valued ally, that farmers feed loaves of bread to donkeys and cows.
- A third of American food aid goes to countries that do not have food shortages. For instance, Morocco, whose residents enjoy a high-calorie diet, received $70 million worth of food aid last year. Angola, with a Marxist government disliked by Washington and a country in which people are starving, received less than $3 million.
- Each year tons of donated food rots on overseas docks because Washington-based geniuses are ignorant of local harvesting and milling schedules.
- In Indonesia, government officials pleaded with the U.S. ambassador to stop the delivery of 70,000 tons of American grain: It would have put local farmers out of business.
Naturally, any program that is the turf battle of five federal agencies will have fatal flaws. In Food for Peace, most of the commodities are sold to foreign governments on easy credit. They get up to 40 years to repay the loans at 2 percent to 4 percent interest.
The governments then sell food to people who can afford to buy it. This generally leaves out malnourished people, who have little clout. The kind-hearted regimes use the currency they "earn" for their own purposes.
In many cases, loans are made to the poorest nations, worsening their debt burdens. Countries that are better off but more interesting to Washington get gifts of food.
The program is "used as a slush fund of the State Department to meet political requirements around the world," said Owen Cylke, acting director of Food for Peace until his retirement last year.
Of course, Cylke didn't talk like that when he was a federal official. Still, it's valuable to get his expertise late instead of never.
In 1989, the 10 leading recipients of food assistance were, in order, Egypt, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Morocco, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Sudan, Jamaica and Sri Lanka.
With the exception of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Sudan, the countries are on the list more for politics than need. And India, which thwarts American foreign policy whenever it can and boasts that it has achieved food sufficiency, shouldn't be on the dole at all.
With its 1991 farm bill, Congress hopes to give the Agency for International Development sole authority to make food grants to the poorest countries. This would bar meddling by the Office of Management and Budget and the Departments of State, Treasury and Agriculture.
At the same time, Congress is trying to limit the president's discretion over food gifts and boost its own power.
It is an open question whether the program, which began with noble aims and became a foreign-welfare mess, can indeed be reformed.