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International Food Assistance

Federal agencies could improve how they manage the programs that deliver U.S. food assistance to food-insecure countries around the world.

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The United States is the largest bilateral (individual country) donor of international food assistance. It spends about $4 billion per year to provide international food assistance to food-insecure countries—in both emergency food assistance to avert humanitarian crises and development assistance to support agriculture and related sectors.

Additionally, in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State have appropriated over $900 million in humanitarian assistance to address, in part, the enormous emergency food needs the pandemic has created.

Estimated Bilateral Disbursements for International Food Assistance, 2014-2018

However, federal agencies face some challenges with effectively managing international food assistance projects. For example, cargo preference laws require that a percentage of U.S. government cargo, including international food aid, be transported on U.S.-flag vessels. However, these requirements increased the overall cost of shipping food aid by an average of 23%, or $107 million, between 2011 and 2014—and their benefits are unclear.

Moreover, prior to the distribution of food aid, USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must determine that the distribution of food aid will not cause a substantial disincentive to a country’s domestic food production. However, while USAID also evaluates local markets for any negative impacts both during and after its food aid projects, USDA does not.

Local Markets in Malawi and Guatemala

USAID also spent about $1.4 billion in FY 2016 on international food aid projects under the Food for Peace Act. These funds have traditionally been used to buy food in the United States and transport it abroad. In addition, USAID spends some of this money on implementation and support costs, such as storing food in warehouses and providing cash and food vouchers to individuals. However, USAID could improve its oversight of these projects by ensuring that it collects complete and consistent monitoring data on how these funds are spent.

Finally, monetization—the sale of U.S. food commodities in developing countries to fund development—is inefficient and can cause adverse market impacts. USDA should conduct market impact evaluations after monetization transactions have taken place to determine whether they caused adverse market impacts.

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  • portrait of Chelsa Kenney
    • Chelsa Kenney
    • Director, International Affairs and Trade
    • gurkinc@gao.gov
    • (202) 512-7215