The United States is the largest supplier of food aid to poor countries in the world. That's great. We're a generous people. (Contrary to right-wing fulminations, foreign aid represents a minuscule portion of our budget.)
In places like Haiti, though, where I reported for two years, the stars-and-stripes-branded sacks of rice and other foods we ship there have a huge and deleterious impact on the local economy. "I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people," Bill Clinton said after the 2010 earthquake, apologizing for his policies as president. He admitted they were "good for some of my farmers in Arkansas," but "we should have continued to work to help them be self-sufficient in agriculture."
I suppose that was a nice gesture. But five-year-old Dieufort Jean and the millions like him can't eat an apology.
And yet on Wednesday, the US House voted 220-203 against a very modest amendment to the Farm Bill that would have freed up more money for local purchase of food aid in the places where we are trying to feed people. That amendment was a watered-down version of the Food Aid Reform Act, which is a common-sense bill that would ban the "monetization" of food aid, a practice that benefits domestic interests more than the poor. Most wealthy countries don't monetize food aid, and the Obama administration has proposed we start doing it the right way too.
During the House debate on the bill yesterday, I watched in horror as representatives from both sides of the aisle made specious and outright false arguments against the reforms. When it came time to vote on the amendment, which would feed more people faster and make monetization optional instead of required, Washington State's House delegation did not cover itself in glory.
Representative Adam Smith (D-9) told me the previous day he was leaning in favor of the amendment, despite concerns over the impact on the shipping and agriculture industry. "This change will cost them money," he said, but he agreed the food aid system is "inefficient and expensive." So he voted for the amendment. Kudos.
Only two of his Washington colleagues, Doc Hastings and Cathy McMorris, joined him. The rest—Representatives McDermott, DelBene, Larsen, Kilmer, Reichert, and Heck—did not. The nay vote from McDermott, who's progressive on a range of issues, is craven and disappointing. A call to his office seeking comment hasn't been returned yet.
Want to hear how Christian nonprofit World Vision, which is based in Federal Way, also opposes meaningful food aid reform, but jumped on board at the last second supporting the weaker amendment yesterday? I wrote more about the story at Humanosphere—read the rest over there.