Drought-stricken Ethiopia is pleading for food aid again to stave off starvation, but some critics are complaining that the policies of the country's most generous donor, the United States, is exacerbating the cycle of starvation.
A hungry Ethiopia gets 70 percent of its aid from the U.S., but according to a new report by the aid organization Oxfam International, that help comes at a cost.
U.S. law requires that food aid money be spent on food grown in the U.S., at least half of it must be packed in the U.S. and most of it must be transported in U.S. ships. The Oxfam report, "Band Aids and Beyond," claims that is far more expensive and time consuming than buying food in the region.
"For roughly $1 spent on aid, the U.S. taxpayer is paying $2 to get it here," said Carolyn Gluck, an Oxfam spokeswoman.
American aid policies also undermine long-term development strategies that could break the cycle of drought and starvation in Ethiopia.
"It's like having a health service that's running on emergency ambulances to deal with the sick all the time," said Gluck. "You can't just deal with the problem. You need to treat the underlying causes, otherwise you'll be locked into this endless cycle of foreign food donors."
It was only 25 years ago that Ethiopia was in the grip of a devastating drought that killed 1 million people, and prompted an alarmed world to launch a massive relief effort.
Today the country again faces a killer drought and looks for help to avoid widespread starvation. The World Food Program in Ethiopia has launched an appeal for $285 million, or 419 tons of cereal in the next six months to help feed the drought-stricken population.
It has also prompted the Oxfam report on the millions of dollars of food aid going to Ethiopia. Oxfam is not the only critic of the current policy. U.S. Government Accountability Office reports show that of the nearly $2 billion a year allocated to foreign food aid, more than half of the funds are spent on transport, not the food.
"It is a clumsy resource," Chris Barrett, a development economics professor at Cornell University, told ABC News. Barrett, the former editor of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, said the current food aid system is not only expensive, but counter-productive to the idea of helping a country in an emergency.
"The median time to deliver emergency aid from the U.S. is just under five months," said Barrett. "At a time when food aid is more important than ever before… we don't follow best global practices."
Some of those best practices include buying food to distribute locally or regionally. For example, instead of shipping grain to Kenya from Iowa, USAID, the U.S. agency in charge of humanitarian food distribution, could buy it from Uganda, or use cheaper and easier ways to transport the food to its destination, allowing more money to be spent on the aid and less on logistics.
Oxfam says more money should be spent instead on long term programs like the Pastoralist Livelihood Initiative. This group works with the largely nomadic cattle herding communities in Ethiopia to find ways to better sustain their livestock through drought situations and strengthen the livestock market. The program began in 2005 and has increased the livestock survival rate more than 10 percent through the last drought in one community where they worked.