The Cable

Treasury Takes Aim at Global Food Security Program

The Trump administration wants to dismantle another Obama-era development program.

A woman with a boy walk in a flooded area on May 31 in Panthau, Northern Bahr al Ghazal, South Sudan. An estimated 63 per cent of the population in Northern Bahr al Ghazal is experiencing severe food insecurity. (Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman with a boy walk in a flooded area on May 31 in Panthau, Northern Bahr al Ghazal, South Sudan. An estimated 63 per cent of the population in Northern Bahr al Ghazal is experiencing severe food insecurity. (Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty Images)

The Treasury Department said this week it would withdraw U.S. funding from a program created by the Obama administration meant to boost food security in the world’s poorest countries.

The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, or GAFSP, was formed after the G-20 summit in 2009. The Obama administration drove the program’s creation and saw it as important part of the “Feed the Future” initiative meant to answer the global food price crisis in 2008.

“The U.S. is not expecting to make any future contributions to GAFSP,” said David Malpass, undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department, in written testimony submitted to a Nov. 8 hearing before the House Financial Services Committee.

GAFSP channels public and private investment to small-holdings and women farmers in impoverished regions, aiming to raise farmers’ incomes, increase food security, and prevent the unrest that comes with food shortages like the ones that sparked bread riots around the world almost a decade ago.

The United States is the program’s biggest donor, providing $653 million, or about one-third of the program’s total funds to date. Other donations come from Germany, Britain, South Korea, Japan, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“GAFSP should be wound down, with donors exploring options to return future reflows to donors,” Malpass said. A representative from the U.S. Treasury also attended a GAFSP steering committee meeting in Rome this week, conveying directly to the program’s leaders the department’s plans to pull funding.

A U.S. withdrawal of funds could be devastating to economic development, security, and humanitarian conditions in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions, said Marie Clarke, a member of the GAFSP steering committee and executive director of the nonprofit ActionAid USA.

“We already have four famines running concurrently,” said Clarke, referring to severe food shortages in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. “This is a fund that gets to the poorest of the poor.”

Decades of underinvestment in the agricultural sector contributed to the food crisis and resulting food riots, Clarke said, and food riots are known to spark wider unrest, such as in the Arab Spring. Gutting the GAFSP and its agricultural investments would only further threaten security in vulnerable regions, she said.

The move dovetails with other efforts to roll back the U.S. role in foreign aid in the Trump administration. The White House proposed sweeping cuts to U.S. development assistance in its budget request earlier this year, though Congress rejected those proposals.

In his testimony, Malpass indicated that this move was part of a broader plan to boost global economic growth in ways that benefit U.S. workers.

“Globalism and multilateralism have gone substantially too far, to the point that they are hurting U.S. and global growth,” Malpass said. He also said that Treasury participates in over 100 international institutions and that it is currently determining “which of them can be wound down, scaled back, or converted to financial plans based on restraint rather than expansion.” He posited that multilateral development banks could pick up the slack, and reforms should include an emphasis on efficiency and private sector investment.

That emphasis makes the de-funding of GAFSP puzzling, Clarke said, noting that 93 percent of its funds go to grants, with only 7 percent going for overhead. The program is “is actually one of the most efficient funds out there,” she said. GAFSP already integrates public- and private-sector investment, as the administration seeks to encourage.

This is the latest Obama-era program to be targeted by the Trump administration. The administration has also pulled out of two other signature Obama initiatives, including the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal.

To Clarke, an emphasis on private investment over direct aid to small farmers will likely reinforce growing inequality in already marginal areas.

“That is a recipe for food insecurity and conflict,” she said.

This piece has been clarified to reflect Marie Clarke’s position as executive director of ActionAid USA.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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