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Trump doctrine: where to cut the aid budget and feed millions

By Ben Ofori      

There's a straightforward way for the U.S. government to help more people with less money, if it's willing to take on the farm lobby.

U.S. food aid in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, part of the relief effort following a severe earthquake in 2010. Candice Villarreal photograph courtesy of Wikimedia
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The United Nations and operational NGOs must be bracing for a major jolt as the Trump administration proceeds to rewrite the rules of U.S. engagement with the world.

So must the word’s poor and vulnerable, who ultimately are targeted beneficiaries of development and humanitarian assistance. The New York Times recently reported leaked communication from the Trump Administration that hinted of a proposed 40 per cent reduction in voluntary U.S. support for the United Nations and other global bodies. This ought not to have come as a surprise to anybody. At least, not for anyone who took President Trump’s recent campaign rhetoric “seriously” rather than “literally.”

The U.S. is the world’s biggest foreign aid donor, contributing nearly a quarter of development assistance provided by major governments. Drastic cuts to the aid budget will have serious consequences for combatting poverty and disease, protecting the rights of women and minorities, and addressing problems of a changing climate. Such cuts could come back to haunt the U.S. and other Western nations, if poverty, disease, and conflict spread across international borders.

While we don’t know what will be on President Trump’s chopping block, his recent actions suggest that targeted cuts or reforms will be motivated more by politics and ideology than by aid efficiency and effectiveness.

This could detract from reforms that are actually needed to reduce wasteful foreign aid spending. A good place for President Trump to start would be U.S. food assistance policy. With less than 0.05 per cent of federal spending, the U.S. is the word’s biggest food assistance donor, reaching some 46 million people every year who face serious food shortages because of disasters, conflicts, and changing climate. Yet, legislative mandates have locked-in inefficiencies that have cost billions in taxpayer dollars and diminished America’s capacity to help the world’s most vulnerable people in places like Syria, Sudan, and northeastern Nigeria. Reforms could save up to an estimated $400-million per year, about a third of the current U.S. food aid budget, which could be used to assist millions more people facing hunger and starvation.

Instead of the present costly policy of shipping food from the U.S., needed reforms should enable emergency food aid to be purchased within or close to crises-affected communities, and thereby support local farmers. Major donor countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, and the EU have led the way in primarily using locally and regionally sourced food assistance along with cash and vouchers.

There is support for this approach among U.S. lawmakers in both parties. Experts have advocated for it too, including researchers from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. But the U.S. farm and shipping lobbies have succeeded in maintaining the status quo. Will the Trump administration take them on? Most likely not. After all, U.S. food aid policy too is premised on “America first” thinking.

Even worse, to take Trump’s rhetoric “seriously” again, his administration may try to withhold U.S. food aid from the world’s most vulnerable people who live in countries that, in President Trump’s words, “hate the U.S.” Many within the NGO community see congressional Republicans as the firewall of last resort that might prevent the Trump Administration from jettisoning major components of the foreign assistance budget.

In the midst of the uncertainty, the role of other leading donor governments like Canada may come into sharp focus. Will the Trump effect lead other nations to do more, or will they step back too? Could Canada’s 2017 budget and eventual outcome of the international assistance review give any indication about Canada really coming back, or retreating?

Benjamin Ofori is a senior policy advisor for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank

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