News Article

As US lawmakers debate, billions of food funding hangs in the balance
March 7, 2024


By: Elissa Miolene

The world is hungrier than ever — and for some United States lawmakers, that means both their country and others need to pick up the slack.

“It’s one thing for us to ask our taxpayers to do more, and we do,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, speaking at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning. “But it’s also important that the global community responds to the food crisis that we have.”

Today, more than 330 million people face acute levels of food insecurity, with places from Gaza to Sudan on the brink of famine. At the same time, the World Food Programme is confronting the worst funding shortfall in the organization’s history — forcing the agency to reduce food, cash, and nutrition programs in nearly half of its global operations.

While the U.S. covers nearly half of WFP’s dwindling budget, throughout Wednesday’s hearing, Cardin repeatedly emphasized that the country can’t do it all — especially as a $10 billion bill for emergency aid funding hangs in the balance.

Last month, the U.S. Senate pushed that bill — part of a larger $95 billion piece of supplemental legislation to support Ukraine and Israel — to the House of Representatives. But with a chamber stacked with Republican opposition, the bill’s future is up in the air. Many lawmakers urged their counterparts in the House to pass the measure, with Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, stating that the thought of axing it was “unconscionable.”

He wasn’t the only one: Dina Esposito, who heads USAID’s Bureau for Resilience, Environment, and Food Security, and Cary Fowler, the special envoy for global food security at the U.S. Department of State, were called as witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing. Each painted a dire picture of food insecurity across the world — and the need for the U.S. to not just keep up the pace, but maximize it. Without a supplemental bill, Esposito said the humanitarian food budget this year will be just half of what it was in 2022.

“Right now, our Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance is estimating that in some of the most difficult places in the world — from Ukraine to Sudan to South Sudan — [a] 40% to 60% reduction [will be seen] in the amount of humanitarian food assistance the U.S. government can provide in the absence of additional resources,” said Esposito.

Despite the push for more in Washington, Cardin reiterated: When it comes to support for WFP, funding from the U.S. far outstrips other countries. While the U.S. contributed over $3 billion to the agency in 2023, Russia committed $71 million, Cardin pointed out. In the same vein, the senator accused Russia of using grain as a weapon of war, dismantling grain exports in Ukraine while expanding the growth of its own.

“Clearly, U.S. leadership is indispensable,” said Cardin, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We need to do more, and we need to get others to do more.”

The senator asked Esposito to provide the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with “the numbers” — or rather, a report on what other countries are doing to address global food insecurity. At the same time, Sen. James Risch, a Republican from Idaho, called for countries receiving food aid to do more, and to address the corruption, stalled economic growth, and ongoing conflict driving food insecurity within their borders.

“Let’s be clear: Congress will never appropriate its way out of this current global food security crisis. We need to do better with what we’ve got,” said Risch, who supported the $95 billion supplemental bill last month.

Other food security issues were raised during the hearing, from the ongoing crisis in Gaza — as of today, 15 children have died of starvation in the territory — to food insecurity driving up unrest in Haiti. Esposito and Fowler were asked how artificial intelligence could be used to combat hunger crises around the world, along with how their programs address hunger disparities between men and women.

“Across the U.S. whole of government approach we spend close to $2 billion a year on food security programming, yet the global response requires an additional $33 billion a year to begin to turn the tide,” said Esposito in a statement to Devex. “Fighting global hunger is a collective effort and we urge other donors to step up.”