Effectively Helping the Poor

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Bob Corker, a Republican senator from Tennessee, and Chris Coons, a Democratic senator from Delaware, discuss how best to help people who are victims of conflict in various parts of the world.  As members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, they must continually determine how the United States can best respond to crises that endanger, displace, and kill hundreds of thousands of people, including many children, in troubled countries across the globe.

Their work has led them to visit numerous nations to assess the effectiveness of US programs and funds in aiding those who are hungry, impoverished, and driven from their homes by civil war, persecution, or natural disasters.  None of their experiences, however, prepared them for what they witnessed last month in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda.  The largest refugee camp in the world, Bidi Bidi provides shelter for more than 270,000 men, women, and children who have been forced to flee South Sudan because of the violence and famine that stalks this new nation.

Since 2013, Corker and Coons explain, “the civil war in South Sudan has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced nearly a third of the country’s population. One report estimates that more than 40 percent of the population faces ‘severe, life-threatening’ hunger, including millions of children.”  At the camp they talked with many mothers and grandmothers who had walked for more than two weeks to try to find a better life for their children and grandchildren.  Some of these women had been raped on their journey.

This humanitarian crisis extends well beyond the South Sudan.  According to the United Nations, 20 million people in Somalia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen are currently facing starvation.  Beyond being “a stain on our collective conscience,” the violence and instability in these countries can adversely affect the rest of the planet.

Corker and Coon suggest several ways to best address such tragedies.  They point out that the US contributes more than a third of the food aid dollars spent globally and argue that it must deploy these funds more efficiently.  They insist, however, that the US must also urge other nations to provide greater resources to help prevent further violence, instability, and suffering.

The two senators argue that the United States must deliver its food aid with an efficiency that matches the generosity of the American people. This has prompted them to author the Food for Peace Reform Act to eliminate regulations that have long required the food we give to aid the hungry to be home grown.  Thus, food often has to be shipped thousands of miles to those who need it.  Corker and Coon estimate this reform could save as much as $500 million annually and enable us to feed five to eight million more people more quickly.  Moreover, I would add, if we purchase the food in these troubled nations or ones nearby we can avoid undercutting the work of farmers in these areas.  How can they compete with free food?

This bill, and other similar reforms, can help us disperse our aid dollars more judiciously and effectively.

Gary SmithComment