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Strategic Planning in a Political World, USAID’s Reform Efforts

Posted April 25, 2013 9:19 AM by Dylan Miyake

PBS had an interesting discussion on their website today. In the video, USAID presents a case for changes in the way it delivers food and aid globally. While there are obvious opportunities for extending their reach and operating more efficiently, the change undermines some very powerful special interest groups. Will the idea move forward, or will it die a quick death?

Watch Should U.S. Have Monopoly on Food Sent Abroad to Aid? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.


For USAID’s Food for Peace program specifically, federal law requires that the majority of food aid must be purchased from US farms and transported on US ships. Each resulting box and pallet of food says in bold text “USAID, FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.”

USAID sees this “Buy American” mandate as a burden. By purchasing from US sources, the food must be packaged, sealed and then transported thousands of miles to places like Haiti, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Even with prepositioning aid in high-risk areas, there can be major delays in delivering aid due to the travel time. Additionally, due to the travel time and safety concerns, a significant portion of USAID’s budget goes to transportation and security. And as a third consideration, USAID is committed to rebuilding local economies that are not dependent on foreign aid, but rather rebuilt and domestically robust.

Given the realities above, USAID’s preference for “buy local” regulations seems to align with strategic objectives like improving response times, minimizing transportation costs, and rebuilding local economies. USAID’s website says “Studies show that local and regional procurement of food and other cash-based programs can get food to people in critical need 11 to 14 weeks faster and at savings of 25 – 50 percent.”

From the opposite perspective, US farms and US shipping companies have considerable interest in continuing the “Buy American” mandate. In addition to the pride of delivering “American” aid, there is big business in the commodity and transportation contracts. And because the farmers and shipping unions can vote for the US politicians that write the regulations and budgets that control USAID, these two interest groups hold considerable power. Their profits and their jobs are at stake and they vote accordingly.

Oxfam, a confederation of organizations supporting the changes at USAID, had this to say, “The US is the most generous donor of food assistance in the world and gets a lot of credit for this.  Cutting aid doesn’t make sense, but why might the Administration seek to fundamentally change this program? The reason is that current US food aid programs are excruciatingly inefficient and in some instances counter-productive to helping people build sustainable agricultural livelihoods.”

In light of the inefficiencies, what is the best path forward? How will politicians seek to shape USAID’s triple mandate of providing aid, rebuilding economies, and buying American? Comments are welcome below!