Washington — Washington's soaring budget deficit, as well as unanticipated crises and natural disasters in poor countries, is resulting in sharp cuts to the U.S. overseas food-aid programme, the world's largest, according to relief and development agencies affected by the reductions.
The administration of President George W Bush, which budgeted nearly 1.2 billion dollars for its Food for Peace programme for fiscal year 2005, has projected a shortfall of nearly 700 million dollars due to unexpected humanitarian crises, such as the mass displacement in Darfur, Sudan.
Private relief agencies have been told by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which oversees Food for Peace, that it lacks the resources to meet some existing commitments. As a result, dozens of longer-term development programmes stretching across the Third World, from Nicaragua to Nepal, will now be delayed, suspended, or cancelled altogether.
"Millions of people will be affected by this", according to Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), whose programmes in Indonesia, Africa and South and Central America have all been affected by the cuts. "By taking away this safety net, we will be abandoning them".
The situation is described by some as "robbing Peter to pay Paul," because funds and food that were allocated to support development programmes, in which food aid is a key component, are being sacrificed to meet the demands of more dire emergencies.
"Devastating long-term development programmes that address the underlying causes of hunger is, in our view, not the best way to solve the problem", Ina Schonberg, an aid expert at Save the Children, told IPS.
She added that programmes to reduce chronic malnutrition -- a contributing cause in 50 percent of all deaths of children under the age of five -- in Mozambique and elsewhere will be seriously undermined by the budget shortfall.
CRS, CARE, World Vision and Save the Children, along with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), are the largest distributors of U.S. food aid.
The budget crunch comes against a backdrop of growing pessimism about the world hunger situation. In 1996, the World Food Summit in Rome pledged to cut the Earth's chronically hungry people by 50 percent by 2015 -- from 800 million to 400 million. That target was later included among the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed on by all of the world's leaders in the year 2000.
But a study released by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) earlier this month, 'The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004', found that the number of hungry people actually increased over the past two years, from 842 million to 852 million.
The WFP, the world's largest multilateral food aid agency, feeds only about 100 million of those people, according to Jordan Dey, the agency's spokesman in Washington. "The challenge has been much greater than the resources available," he said. "There's always more we can do".
The amount of food aid from donor nations has also fallen in recent years, according to Ellen Levinson, director of the Coalition for Food Aid, a Washington-based group that represents 16 major U.S. relief and development agencies.
"The Europeans have cut back tremendously to food aid in the past decade, and that means that during these unusual emergencies, there aren't other donor countries that are filling the gaps", she told IPS. "So the pressure comes back to the U.S., which then is forced to divert aid for development programmes into dealing with emergencies".
The United States has long been the world's biggest single donor of food aid, traditionally providing 35-40 percent of projected emergency needs worldwide, including about 50 percent of the food aid distributed by the WFP.
When the administration first requested 1.2 billion dollars for the Food for Peace 2005 account, it allocated 468 million dollars of the total to emergency needs.
But as a result of the crisis in Darfur -- where some 1.6 million people have been displaced by fighting and a brutal counter-insurgency campaign -- flooding in Bangladesh, locusts in West Africa, continued food shortages in Afghanistan and drought in Ethiopia and Eritrea, USAID estimates that some 1.3 billion dollars will be needed to meet those needs.
It is that shortfall which is pushing USAID to perform what one official called "triage" on long-term development projects that were originally supposed to receive 715 million dollars in food aid.
"Unless something changes rapidly and a supplemental (appropriation) is approved, the situation is extremely serious", according to CRS Vice President Sean Callahan. "It looks like programmes could be cut by 50 percent or even cancelled, if no additional resources are forthcoming", he told IPS.
The agencies are working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both houses of Congress to try to get more food released from the agriculture department's special stockpile, called the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust (BEHT), and to get lawmakers to consider an emergency supplemental appropriation as soon as possible after Congress convenes in January.
A letter drafted by Republican Senator Sam Brownback and signed by up to 24 other senators will be sent to Bush later this week urging the White House, whose Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has reportedly resisted releasing further BEHT resources because of the budgetary impact of re-stocking it, to prevail on OMB in the first case, and support a generous supplemental bill in the second.
The administration's spending and tax cuts in the past four years have transformed a 236.4-billion-dollar budget surplus into a 413-billion-dollar deficit.
The costs of the delays and cancellations that have resulted form the shortfall are considerable. CRS estimates that more than 5.5 million vulnerable people will be severely affected, including about 1.2 million schoolchildren from poor households, many of whom receive their main source of nutrition through school lunches; nearly 1.6 million AIDS orphans, disabled people and those with HIV/AIDS and other chronic diseases and more than 1.2 million mothers and infants who receive supplemental nutrition.
"It takes more than food to fight hunger in the long term", stressed Schonberg, who said Save the Children had food-aid-related development projects that are now at risk in 14 countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Indonesia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Sudan, Tajikistan and Uganda.