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Flexibility in US food aid to Syria should be the rule – not the exception

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In April, President Obama’s budget proposed to bring food aid programs into the 21st century. These reforms end wasteful practices and eliminate programs that are saddled with outdated regulations. The changes would use the savings to boost programs like the Emergency Food Security program that have a proven track-record of success. And here’s the best part – they would allow the US to extend life-saving aid to up to 4 million more people without costing taxpayers one extra penny.

With hunger bound to arise as a topic of discussion at the G-8 Summit later this month, quicker and more flexible food aid can be a practical solution. In contrast, the current system requires that bulk commodities be bought from a limited group of preferred agribusiness corporations in the US, and then be shipped on preferred vessels before they are dispersed into local markets. Often these shipments compete with local and regional farmers, undermining long-term food security for the very people we aim to help.

US commodities designated as food aid often take three to five months to reach their destination. By comparison, local purchasing takes approximately 35 days. In times of crisis, this delay can be the difference between life and death.

America's generosity has saved hundreds of millions of people from starvation, but the system is broken and in desperate need of reform. Policymakers from both parties have known this for years. Several years ago, former President Bill Clinton apologized for exporting cheap American rice to Haiti: "It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked.”

A more prudent approach, as allowed by Mr. Obama’s proposed reforms, would allow aid agencies to buy food from local farmers, or the closest supplier who offers the best price. Direct purchase from local farmers would not only get the food to those in need more quickly, it would also help spur economic growth where it is needed most, allowing poor farmers to break their cycle of dependence on outside aid.

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