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June 28, 2011

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Ken Hackett: Remarks to the 2011 International Food Aid Conference

Thank you Under Secretary Scuse. This is a great privilege and honor. It actually might be more interesting if I just narrated the slides that are being shown than give the remarks I planned.

It was soon after I first got into the international humanitarian world that I ran into food aid. The year was 1968. That was when I graduated from Boston College with a business degree. I ended up in the Peace Corps. In Ghana.

A few months later I found myself in a tiny village living and working with a priest from Czechoslovakia. (Some of you are old enough to remember the Prague Spring of 1968!) This was where I had my first encounter with PL 480. He had received a valuable, but I learned later irregular, supply of NFDM and Wheat Soya Blend. It was being used in the school lunch program where its impact on kids who walked up to 7 miles a day to and from class was visible. Since the village was located between the flooded Volta Lake and two rivers as boundaries to the North and South, the area was connected by an unreliable and irregular ferry. The supplies were never enough. One of the first things he asked me to do was to organize and clean out a storage shed.

This was my first experience in warehouse management. It was also my first experience to see the actual impact of American food aid on the health and well being of very poor kids in a very isolated part of a West African country in the 60's.

Ever since those days I have always read the critical reports on food aid with a great deal of skepticism. What we always have to remind our critics, and all too often ourselves, is that, sure, some things go awry, some things don't work out, but many, many people around the globe are alive and living better lives because of the work we do. It is essential, vital work.

I found my calling while in the Peace Corps and soon after began my career with Catholic Relief Services. My first assignment was in Sierra Leone. CRS ran an extensive maternal and child health nutrition program on a nationwide basis. The whole process looked different from that vantage point. Food aid - seen by so many out there as simple; getting a hungry person a cup of rice or a needy family a bag of grain - was instead a matter of complex supply chain management - getting the goods from the port to the warehouse, securing the warehouse, guarding the food, recognizing that you have a valuable commodity on your hands that needs to be taken care of.

Then there is the matter of getting it out of the warehouse, shipping it to the right places, to the right people, targeting the people who needed it. What a complex problem in countries that, as you know, do not have the greatest infrastructures, decent roads, communication, the things Wal-Mart takes for granted when it gets its products to its stores.

You need top quality staff. You need a system that ensures accountability. You need systems as good if not better than the local soft drink or beer distributors. They get their product at a reasonable price beyond the end of the road. That is where we're expected to bring PL 480 commodities and related services. Over my 40 year career at CRS, I've been in a lot of countries. Managing American food aid programs has been an important part of my job and my organizations work as it continues to be. Along the way we've learned a few things. One of the principal things we learned has to do with perspective. All too often, food aid critics and proponents alike look at the use of the resource from 40,000 feet in the air. The view was different from ground level.

And during those four decades the use of food aid as a resource has changed and we were among the many humanitarian agencies that helped change it. In the early days of my engagement it was simply viewed as a resource transfer to assist our government to win friends. So in the 70's and early 80's it didn't really matter too much how it was used programmatically. Yes, there were nutritional components and educational components, but overall it was part of the package of resources that constituted official development assistance to our friends. And equally there were conscious attempts to withhold it from those thought to be our enemies. The classic case was the writing out of all American food assistance to Ethiopia in the FY 85 budget. Which happily was exposed and did not happen. As a result hundreds of thousands of starving Ethiopians received American food assistance in their terrible hour of need in spite of their government.

But in the 80's and into the early 90's we and others had begun to wrap food aid programs in a sharper packaging.

It was under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Carlos Capone, the CRS medical and nutritional director in the late 1970s, that CRS made some important contributions to understanding that food aid could be part of long term development. As he worked with the likes of Dr. David Morley of the London School of Tropical Medicine and Dr. Nevin Scrimshaw of MIT, we added a growth tracking system to the nutrition programs we ran across the continent of Africa. This offered us the program organizers and the individual mothers attending the MCH program where PL480 was distributed an instant feedback on the health of her child.

In 1978, USAID conducted an evaluation of the CRS food aid program in Morocco, which was using food as an incentive for people to get nutrition education. The evaluation showed that food aid alone did not improve in a sustained way the nutritional status. And education by itself was insufficient. But those who got the food and the education together showed marked improvements in nutritional status compared to children not in the program. Clearly, education without access to life-giving food could never have achieved the results of the two together.

We also learned that those who participate in these programs are the best ones to be involved with the design of the programs. This outlook is part of something so crucial to what we do at CRS, so crucial to any successful development program - listen to the people you serve. Respect their wisdom and knowledge. They know what they need. The point is to help them fulfill those needs.

Then for a number of years starting in the late 80's, USAID seemed to lose interest in food assisted development programs. Emergency programs continued but food aid as a development resource lost favor and budget. Decisions were pushed out to the USAID missions and they didn't appear to like the idea of large budgetary resources not totally within their grasp. So over the 10 year period of mid 80's into mid 90's, we saw program after program drop off the deck. Simultaneously, larger portions of the emergency food aid went to WFP. The American PVO's laid off staff and found other areas of focus.

It was also in the late 80's, that a caveat was placed in the legislation which became a point of considerable debate. That was the concept of monetizing food in designated countries. Some US organization saw this mechanism as a way to generate funds to support their non food aided development efforts. Others saw it as a way to support food-assisted programs. And some mixed both agendas.

Monetization proved to be a difficult, somewhat inefficient vehicle for overcoming tight budgets. Ask any of us in the PVO community that engages in monetization and we will tell you that we'd much prefer to receive cash to fund these vital developmental efforts than to have to sell PL480 in country to generate the monies.. But for many years, monetized food aid has been the only resource available to us and these food-assisted development programs are too vital to be abandoned.

More recently, particularly under the Obama Administration but to some extent under the Bush Administration, there started to be a new appreciation of a distinctive value in nutrition and food assisted programs. In the Bush Administration there was a realization that HIV/AIDS patients needed a certain level of nutrition for the drug therapy to be effective. Food assistance to families impacted by the disease was seen as of vital importance. Available supplemental local food was the optimum alternative but for want of available cash to subsidize or pay for the cost of local food PL 480 was a more expensive but available option. And under the Obama Administration there appears to be a new recognition of nutrition in general as a critical component in the development process.

For instance, now we are looking at a program in Burundi (as mentioned by Dr. Shah) to see how fortified foods can help reduce stunting when given to those under the age of 2. It is now known that stunting is irreversible past that age. We are painfully aware that stunting thwarts human development, and so we are pleased to be working with Food for Peace and the Government of Burundi, studying the way access to food aid, nutrition education and good quality health services can reduce stunting rates in a very targeted population. We are looking for the best, most nutritious food, the best methods of delivery, the best way to improve the lives of those we are trying to help.

As you know, there are various ways to help people get enough food. The best is to have them grow their own. At CRS, we support all sorts of agricultural programs. We were early pioneers of seed fairs and voucher programs. These couple the wisdom of local farmers with the power of the marketplace, getting more and better seeds into the hands of more and more farmers, improving productivity, helping the local economy.

That's only one of the many ways we help people grow their own food. We must make greater investments in agriculture in the developing world. The decline in that investment over the last couple of decades has hurt a lot of people. We need to empower small-scale woman farmers to enable them to participate in the economy. They need better seeds, better fertilizer, better crops and more knowledge. They need better access to markets and market information so they can negotiate more effectively with middlemen, better storage for their crops to reduce spoilage.

Challenges and obstacles abound. The nature of crop disease is changing. The cost of food is moving beyond the means of the urban and rural poor in many countries. The land grab in many African and Latin American countries will have consequences for the small holder that could be negative and severe. We can't leave out the smallholder.

As we in America know so well, there are few things more powerful than the market. At CRS, anywhere we can make the market work in service of feeding the hungry, we try to do that. We work to get farmers to grow foods that have buyers, to get them to understand how to connect with customers, how to join the marketplace. We help them to form associations that will help them cooperatively to identify new markets, take advantage of new technology, access information critical to decision-making on what to plant and when and at what price to sell. This not only stimulates local production, it also addresses the growing problem of urban hunger in the developing world. And it creates and improves jobs.

Sometimes this kind of work surprises our constituency - whether it's voters or donors. It's a long-term enterprise and the results and benefits often are not immediately apparent. Take Haiti for example. Before the earthquake, we were running one of the biggest feeding programs going down there. We had PL480 stored in the southern town of Les Cayes and some on the sea when the earthquake hit. Within 18 hours we were able to use that food to feed some of the hundreds of thousands displaced throughout the city of Port au Prince. That was the kind of emergency response people like to see and it got us some pats on the back.

But within days it became clear that there was food in the markets of Port-au-Prince and the free food was hurting the market for local items.

We started cutting back on our handouts, emphasizing instead cash-for-work programs that would help stimulate that local market. Eventually, agreeing with the Haitian government, we ended the handouts. But this is not the image people want to see in a place like earthquake-devastated Haiti. Many people were troubled to see food distributions come to an end and we took some heat over it. What they did not necessarily understand was that our Title II development and emergency programming in Haiti ensured that we had a ready supply of food and an infrastructure available to respond to the immediate needs after the earthquake. Then when the market began working again, we could pull back, turn to other interventions and help support the local response from Haitians themselves. Decisions like that don't get you good publicity. But they are the right thing to do in the long run.

As some of you may remember - at least I hope some of you remember - I spoke at this conference a few years ago. Those two years seem like an eternity in many ways. When I spoke, Barack Obama had just taken office. A new foreign policy was in the works. There were high hopes for increased resources for foreign aid and specifically for fighting hunger in the world. Groups like mine had joined together to come up with the Roadmap to End Global Hunger. We were ticking off the benchmarks as we pursued the first Millennium Development Goal. All seemed possible.

I don't have to tell you that we now live in a different political world. Every penny is being counted, in Washington and in many other capitals of the developed world. Foreign aid has been put in the bulls-eye of those taking aim at the federal budget.

Despite the political sea change, I stand by what I said here in 2009 - we can end global hunger. We know how. We know what's involved. The question is: do we have the will?

Right now we find ourselves in the midst of this political maelstrom around the budget. I believe that the American people and so many others of goodwill throughout the world still have that commitment to end hunger. I know that we do in the faith-based community. Our donors have remained with us even through these hard times. But a major challenge we face is that the constituency that has supported programs assisted by American food aid grows smaller by the year. With fewer American PVO's involved in PL480 programs there are fewer voices advocate for this program.

So where do we go from here?

Here are some realities:

So what should or could be done?

  1. Continue to increase investments in agriculture, research, production and marketing.
  2. Continue to invest in research and practices that deal with crop diseases that appear to be growing in certain parts of the world.
  3. Ensure that agricultural interventions such as "Feed the Future" deal with the agrarian subsistence sector as well as the large commercial agrarian sector.
  4. Intentionally build the capacities of nongovernmental local organizations to substitute for the dwindling capacities of foreign Private Voluntary Organization in the distribution of food assistance.
  5. Make PL 480 Title II more efficient. Let me offer three suggestions:
    1. I'm sure many of you have seen the recent paper by John Norris and Connie Veillette from the Center for Global Development. They estimate savings of up to $200 million a year if we eliminated monetization. The GAO estimates that the savings would be less but nonetheless still significant. That is money we cannot afford to waste in the current climate. By this I mean we need to use these resources more wisely by giving implementers direct funding for the non-food distribution programs that help the poor.
    2. Address the issue of cargo preference. Don't take this in the wrong way - I am not saying the United States does not need a cargo fleet or that subsidies are not required to insure that fleet is viable and ready when our country needs it. But I am questioning whether cargo preference is the proper and most efficient way to subsidize that fleet. There must be a better way than making programs designed to feed the hungry pay out some $150 million more per year - again citing Norris and Veillette — than they would otherwise.
    3. Attempt to return to that pattern of collaboration that was normative in years past were generally we try to solve problems together.

Wherever we find inefficiencies in our work, we must get rid of them. Business does this all the time. But in our work, it is not just livelihoods that are at stake, it is actual lives.

In closing, I want to return to where I started, to Ghana, and tell you a different story about food aid, about one of those institutional feeding programs.

For decades, CRS ran a major school feeding program in Ghana. Generations of school children ate food donated by the United States and distributed by CRS. They even had their own name for the Wheat Soya blend. They called it Tom Brown. We know that food was a major factor in kids going to school. They might have come for a meal — they left with an education.

Many of the people who ate that food and got their education are now in the government of Ghana. It's a good government. And you know what? Our program in Ghana is much smaller than it used to be because that government has taken over the feeding programs. So, because we in America fed these kids, they went to school, got an education so they could join the government or private sector and help improve the lives of the Ghanaian people, building the capacity of the country to participate productively in the economy.

You don't need rose-colored glasses to appreciate that picture. In Ghana, CRS worked ourselves out of a job.

That's what we all should be trying to do, to work ourselves out a job. Because that would mean there are no hungry people in the world.

Now that would certainly be a wonderful mission accomplished.

It has been a privilege to be associated with such a fine group. Keep up the good work.