Women Farmers Get a Boost From New Global Food-Aid Bill

Instead of sending food in a crisis, U.S. global hunger relief efforts will focus on helping farmers before disaster hits.
Women from a local cocoa farmers association spread cocoa beans to dry in Djangobo, Niable prefecture, eastern Ivory Coast. (Photo: Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters)
Jul 11, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

In the 1980s, a group of pop stars came together under the name Band Aid to record the saccharine but catchy anthem “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to provide famine relief to those starving in Ethiopia. The song’s high sales numbers garnered media attention throughout the Western world and inspired new generations of musical fund-raising efforts. Today, when conflict-related displacement is at an all-time high, a new food-security bill passed with little notice outside the food media. The Global Food Security Act, which Congress passed on July 6, will allow U.S. food aid to do a lot more than sing for people’s supper.

On the surface, it’s easy to see why this bill wouldn’t stir up the same excitement as GMO labeling or changes to nutrition standards. It doesn’t directly create programs or add funding to existing aid efforts. Yet the president heralded the GFSA as a “game-changing development initiative.”

So why does it matter? In a nutshell, the law sets new standards for U.S. involvement in global hunger relief efforts, with an emphasis on helping women, children, and smallholder farmers. It requires annual reports on the effectiveness of aid work and calls not just for emergency fixes to hunger but long-term efforts to reduce global food shocks and reliance on food aid. The hope seems to be that U.S. global food policy can be more than just a Band-Aid and instead create lasting change.

“You don’t ever want to be too prescriptive when it comes to international relief programs,” said Liz Marcey, senior policy advocate for CARE, a humanitarian organization focused on ending poverty, particularly among women. But while it may lack new funding, the bill redraws the geography of U.S. aid programs in a significant way—one that could help women farmers require less of such aid down the road.

In the past, much of U.S. food aid has come from in-kind donations—food purchased from U.S. suppliers, shipped by U.S. freight, and distributed in destination countries by U.S. NGOs. Such a top-down, U.S.-centric approach has been decried as wasteful and ineffective as a humanitarian practice—even as it has filled the pockets of many U.S. businesses. Though the new law doesn’t end in-kind donations, the focus on efforts such as increasing the “productivity, incomes, and livelihoods of small-scale producers” or creating an “environment for agricultural growth and investment” would reduce the need for direct food assistance.

By requiring global food aid to focus on improving the nutritional status of women and children while increasing stability for smallholder farmers, aid will be reaching a majority of the world’s poorest people. “About 80 percent of food produced in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is produced by women,” Marcey said. “If you’re not reaching them, you’re not reaching farmers.”

Keeping people fed is more than just a noble goal—it’s a form of peacekeeping. The GFSA cited a 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community that found lack of food was a “destabilizing force in countries important to U.S. national security” that could “provide opportunities for insurgent groups to capitalize on poor conditions, exploit international food aid, and discredit governments for their inability to address basic needs.”

The GFSA also requires better coordination and accountability among government agencies when it comes to food assistance. The state of global affairs and the types of aid required can change quickly. The number of people displaced by conflict is at a record high, and four ongoing crises—in South Sudan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—received the highest U.N. designation, according to USAID. But food aid for these populations is not the same as that required by a natural disaster.

To anticipate the unknown, “the language needs to be broad enough to be nimble but narrow enough that you can be held accountable,” Marcey said. Previously, much of American foreign aid came from a structure set out in a 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. “Things have changed since then,” Marcey said, in terms not just of technological developments but also of our awareness of where help is needed most. The passage of this law also finalizes some of this administration’s food-aid policies—such as the 2010 “Feed the Future” initiative to improve food security in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia—in a way that ensures the next president can’t dismantle them.

The new law will also require annual reporting, which will make it easier to track consistency. Marcey said that while the administration gives an annual report, the same metrics aren’t used each year. Likewise, researchers will be able to expect desegregated data showing not just how many farms there are but how many are run by women and how big they are. “This is the first time we can have a law that shows the importance of these issues and what we can expect to get in return for U.S. taxpayer dollars,” she said.