More than 3 million children die from hunger and malnutrition worldwide every year, making up nearly half of all deaths of children 5 years and under. While poverty and inequality are at the root of hunger, long-running conflicts, climate-related extreme weather events, and economic or health shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are force multipliers that accelerate the scope and impact of hunger in communities globally. As the largest donor of food commodities in the world, U.S. food assistance can mean the difference between extreme hunger and famine.
U.S. food assistance can mean the difference between extreme hunger and famine.
Formally established in the aftermath of World War II, U.S. international food assistance is a multilayered suite of programs authorized every five years through Title III of the farm bill with consistent bipartisan support. Among these programs is McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition (McGovern-Dole), which focuses primarily on reducing hunger, advancing literacy, and increasing primary education access for girls. It is also designed to promote democratic principles and strengthen U.S. trade. In 2008, former Sens. George McGovern (D-SD) and Bob Dole (R-KS) were awarded the World Food Prize for their bipartisan leadership, and in 2022, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution applauding the contributions of the McGovern-Dole program to girls’ education and food security in its first 20 years.
Number of children worldwide who die from hunger and malnutrition every year
Yet as negotiations to reauthorize the farm bill advance this year, some members of Congress are pushing to eliminate or greatly reduce the reach of McGovern-Dole, asserting that it is made up of “wasteful spending programs.” U.S. food aid—including McGovern-Dole—is structured to meet several objectives, including to 1) alleviate poverty, bolster school enrollment, improve global food security in emergencies, and build longer-term community resilience; 2) support goodwill toward the United States and promote democratic principles and values; and 3) bolster U.S. trade and exports.
This column makes the case for reauthorization of McGovern-Dole in the 2023 Farm Bill by highlighting concrete successes and progress toward the fulfillment of U.S. objectives in the case studies presented and by contending that geopolitical and humanitarian threats of extreme hunger leave no time to waste.
Alleviating hunger, improving school attendance, and building community resilience
Administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), McGovern-Dole school feeding programs are a sustainable investment in communities that improves nutrition, boosts school enrollment, increases attendance rates, and narrows the gender gap in education while raising academic performance, particularly for girls.
Investing in girls’ education translates into more vibrant economic growth and political participation, broader access to women’s health care, and smaller, more sustainable families.
More than 130 million girls are denied schooling each year, less than half of the world’s countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, and less than 10 percent of poor rural girls in 23 countries have completed secondary education. The McGovern-Dole program is designed to reach these girls, but it is not just girls who benefit from it. Decades of evidence establish that investing in girls’ education translates into more vibrant economic growth and political participation, broader access to women’s health care, and smaller, more sustainable families. Indeed, a woman with some primary education will gain 19.3 percent in earned income, on average, compared with a woman without primary education. For women with some secondary schooling, that gain increases to 96.6 percent; and for women who attend college, the gain is a staggering 323.4 percent.
Investing in girls’ education: By the numbers
Average gain in earned income for women with some primary education vs. women without primary education
Average gain in earned income for women with some secondary education vs. women without primary education
Average gain in earned income for women who attend college vs. women without primary education
As the following achievements demonstrate, McGovern-Dole fully meets its first objective to alleviate hunger, facilitate access to education for girls, bolster school enrollment, and support sustainable communities:
- In fiscal year 2021, McGovern-Dole furnished an average of 2.1 daily meals to 4 million children, women, and families; trained more than 10,800 teachers; supplied 2.8 million students with materials and supplies needed to improve literacy; and treated 1.4 million children with deworming medication to improve health outcomes and achieve the intended impact of school feeding.
- In Mozambique, volunteer reading camp promoters established 530 afterschool reading camps and intend to recruit 1,600 volunteer promoters to build capacity and support knowledge transfer from McGovern-Dole-funded organizations to community-led literacy spaces.
- In Sri Lanka, coordination between U.S. officials, international nongovernmental organizations, local officials, school administrators, and parents resulted in an incredible 99 percent average student attendance rate. Through take-home food rations, 460,000 children and families were also reached.
Building democratic and accountable institutions
Girls’ education is among the Biden administration’s priorities because there is a symbiotic relationship between the strength of democracies and the participation and empowerment of women and girls in political, economic, and social spaces. The McGovern-Dole program is designed to develop and embed democratic principles through student learning, capacity building of teachers and parents, and, ultimately, a transition of school feeding programs from USAID to local and national governments. This begins with eligibility for the program, which is limited to countries undergoing an acute food crisis, if the government is committed to both assuming leadership of domestic food security over time and adopting agricultural sustainability, food security, and other key policies consistent with U.S. positions.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the strength of democracies and the participation and empowerment of women and girls in political, economic, and social spaces.
In the process of building sustainable school lunch programs that can be transitioned, McGovern-Dole supports the establishment of transparent and accountable governance bodies in key areas, including food security, girls’ education, local and national governance, and health care, among other services. As governments begin to deliver on the needs of the people, trust should be built and oversight measures should be triggered to empower people to hold their government to account for addressing gaps or inequities in services, bolstering civil society, and reinforcing democratic principles.
The following examples demonstrate these goals at work:
- In 2021, McGovern-Dole supported capacity building in communities by funding parent teacher associations (PTAs), leading to more than 11,000 new PTAs in one year. PTAs were then trained to manage school meal programs and advocate for their children if services were disrupted. Concurrently, improvements to school infrastructure and the development of transparent and accountable national legislation set a baseline of community expectations on which government run programs would be measured.
- In Senegal, McGovern-Dole funded the Ministry of Education in 2018—in partnership with Counterpart International—to build capacity for planning, financing, and implementing a community-led national school feeding program, as well as to establish sustainable local purchasing groups to lead procurement processes and procedures for locally and regionally sourced food for school lunch programs. In 2023, Senegal is leading and coordinating school food programs across the ministries of Agriculture, Health, Education, and Gender.
- In an evaluation of McGovern-Dole in the Asia-Pacific region from 2013 to 2018, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, and Nepal were all found to be transitioning to national leadership of school feeding programs after achieving concrete and impressive education and governance results. For instance, in Cambodia, the literacy target of 80 percent for sixth-grade students was exceeded by 5 percent; and in Nepal, the proportion of students able to read and understand grade-level text by the end of second grade increased from 1 percent to 23 percent.
Bolstering U.S. trade
All U.S. international food programs are designed to build and strengthen the economies and capacity of partner countries to participate in international trade, as well as to ensure the United States benefits from their emerging markets, thereby increasing demand for U.S. agricultural products and other goods and services. In fact, from 2007 to 2017, U.S. food assistance partner countries made up almost two-thirds of U.S. export growth. The McGovern-Dole program demonstrates the efficacy of this strategy, as across countries, when girls complete six, nine, and 12 years of school, their earning potential increases by 9 percent, 21 percent, and 45 percent, respectively. As local and national economies grow, U.S. value per dollar also increases.
When girls complete six, nine, and 12 years of school, their earning potential increases by 9 percent, 21 percent, and 45 percent, respectively.
McGovern-Dole delivers food assistance in two ways. The first, in-kind assistance, makes up about 90 percent of McGovern-Dole funds and is sourced from U.S. agriculture, including rice, grain, and oil. The second, market-based assistance, comprises up to 10 percent of McGovern-Dole funds and is designed to boost local economies by procuring food commodities locally and regionally and delivering cash to families, with strong oversight mechanisms. This, in turn, supports the transition of school lunch program administration from the U.S. government to partner governments.
There are differing perspectives on whether the allocation of resources between in-kind and market-based options is the most effective way to address food insecurity globally. In fact, both approaches are critical. In countries already experiencing extreme hunger or famine, local food commodities may not exist, and local economies may not be strong enough to effectively absorb cash infusions. At the same time, in-kind approaches are designed to address immediate needs, but countering chronic food insecurity requires longer-term investments in local agricultural production and communities to disrupt the underlying poverty, inequality, and other factors perpetuating it.
The 2023 Farm Bill should facilitate greater flexibility so that strategies to address and disrupt food insecurity are based on the specific needs and dynamics of each community.
Rather than forcing communities to rely almost exclusively on in-kind assistance, even when the circumstances warrant a more complex intervention, the 2023 Farm Bill should facilitate greater flexibility so that strategies to address and disrupt food insecurity are based on the specific needs and dynamics of each community.
Some successful trade outcomes where McGovern-Dole is operating include:
- In Liberia, per capita gross domestic product (GDP) rose from $183 in 2000 to $456 in 2015. Moreover, a once $2.5 million U.S. trade deficit was replaced by a $91 million U.S. trade surplus, demonstrating that small, growing economies can open up new export opportunities.
- In the Democratic Republic of Congo, U.S. trade increased from $50 million in 2013 to more than $90 million in 2022.
- In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, increasing U.S. food and goods exports supported 11.5 million U.S. jobs in 2015.
- In 2023, U.S. agriculture sourced $524 million in in-kind food assistance for Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia during a U.N. high-level pledging event hosted by the United States, Italy, Qatar, and the United Kingdom, culminating in $2.4 billion in pledges and pulling the region back from widespread famine.
The world is facing a historically significant moment. Anti-democratic competitors are attempting to overtake U.S. humanitarian and development leadership in the world, disrupt long-standing geopolitical relationships, and undermine democratic principles.
For about $1.30 annually per taxpayer, McGovern-Dole is successfully countering these efforts, reinforcing U.S. leadership, and embedding democratic values in countries vulnerable to the aggressive influence of other powers. Now is not the time to retreat from this successful humanitarian, diplomatic, and economic program. Instead, Congress should authorize and increase flexibility of and funding for the program.
Conversely, if Congress does not reauthorize McGovern-Dole or significantly reduces its funding, progress in food security, democratic institutions, and trade exports may be lost and the vacuum left filled by the People’s Republic of China, facilitating the expansion of its influence and footprint in countries and undermining bipartisan U.S. foreign policy objectives.