How the U.S. Farm Bill Could Save Both Money and Lives in Africa

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

In Roger Thurow's just-released book, The Last Hunger Season, he depicts a scene from last summer in Western Kenya in which local farmers were dealt a frustrating blow. They had a surplus of maize and no one to buy it, yet just 200 kilometers away, aid workers were feeding their fellow Kenyans corn shipped all the way from the American Midwest. "Why don't they buy our corn?" they asked. Farmers in the crisis-stricken Sahel region -- an arid band of land in West Africa just south of the Sahara that stretches across Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and other countries -- may be asking the same question right now. The perplexing answer has to do with the domestic politics of the U.S. Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill is an unwieldy five-year bill dedicated to shaping the U.S. government's policies and spending on energy, farm subsidies, food stamps, conservation policies, and international agricultural trade, which includes the largest donor food aid program in the world, known as "Food for Peace." While Congress debates the bill, close to 16 million farmers and herders in the Sahel are facing an intense and life-threatening version of their annual "hunger season."

The crisis is being addressed in part -- the World Food Program and others are keeping nearly 10 million people afloat with a combination of food, cash and animal fodder for herds. However, the remaining 6 million people are growing thinner, skipping meals and beginning to sell their cows, pails and hoes in an effort to survive. In order to close this gap in the short-term, donor countries must fulfill the UN's appeal for humanitarian aid and link emergency aid with development assistance. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, Congress has the opportunity to make changes to the Farm Bill that would allow U.S. food assistance to reach 6 million more people with the same amount of funding.

Allowing more flexibility in food aid procurement could make a world of difference in emergencies like the one facing the Sahel. In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress funded a pilot program to test the novel idea of purchasing food aid close to its intended destination -- a practice widely used by major food aid donors and companies like Coca-Cola. The preliminary results of the pilot have been very positive, demonstrating that buying local grains can cut food aid costs by 50 percent, save months of time, and improve farmers' incomes, storage practices and understanding of markets. In Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, where the current crisis looms, the pilot's success was even more pronounced.

Given these savings, I've calculated that if Congress passed an amendment to the Farm Bill to allow just 25 percent of Food for Peace food aid grains to be purchased closer to their destination, the U.S. government could save almost $200 million in Fiscal Year 2013 and reach 6 million more people -- almost exactly the shortfall in the Sahel.

Although Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali suffer cyclical food security setbacks, they are on track to halve hunger and poverty and achieve the first Millennium Development Goal. All three countries are among the leaders in the continent in agricultural sector spending and have national strategies for developing their agriculture sectors that unfortunately lack funding. I'd hate to see the countries slide backwards.

Bridging the gap between humanitarian assistance and sustainable agricultural development will be the challenge for Sahelian countries and the international community once the hunger season subsides. For now, though, there are lives to be saved. ONE's 3 million members would like to see Congress put special interests aside and do the best it can to accomplish that mission -- for the Sahel and for future humanitarian crises.