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Mar 2011
Buying Local Halfway across the Globe
Zenab for Women in Development.
The director of Zenab for Women in Development, Fatima Ahmed (left), with two women peanut farmers in Sudan.

It’s time to change the way America gives aid. The international women’s rights organization MADRE is calling on the United States government to stop flooding African nations with its agricultural surplus and to start buying crops from local African farmers instead.

Meet Khalida Mahmoud, a 29-year-old woman whose farming family was driven into worsening poverty after the U.S. poured food aid into her home region of eastern Sudan. That’s not how food aid is supposed to work. But just look at the policy: American tax dollars are used to buy grain from U.S. factory farms, the same giant corporations that already receive $26 billion a year in tax subsidies. Then, the grain is transported halfway around the world, using thousands of gallons of fossil fuels and releasing tons of harmful carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The transport typically takes months. Meanwhile, hungry people grow more desperate.

Once the food finally arrives, it floods agricultural markets, destabilizing fragile local economies. Small farmers are the first to go bankrupt. Most of them are women like Khalida, who work small plots of land hoping to sell enough at market to buy cooking oil, flour, a bar of soap, and a pair of shoes so a child can stay in school.

These women are more than the backbones of their families; they grow most of Africa’s food. Unlike giant grain corporations, these women farm without fossil fuels or harmful chemicals. Their sustainable agricultural practices are critical to meeting the twin challenges of feeding people and protecting the planet. Khalida and millions of other, small-scale women farmers are the people we should support with our food aid programs. Instead, the current policy undermines the livelihoods of those who hold the key to long-term food security in Africa.

Fortunately, there is a straightforward solution: the United States should buy food-aid crops directly from local farmers in Africa. When the United Nations World Food Programme did this, they were able to obtain 75 percent more corn to feed hungry families than when they purchased grain from factory farms in the United States. Buying specifically from women farmers has an enormous added benefit: studies consistently show that when poor women gain access to money, they use it to provide food, health care, and education for their children.

Now is the perfect time to push for this innovative solution, and Sudan is the best place to start. Here are two reasons why:

First, pressure has been building for Congress to reform the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, which governs how food aid is purchased and administered. The new policy should recognize that even widespread hunger is invariably a localized crisis and that food aid crops should be purchased directly from women farmers in the regions targeted to receive assistance.

Second, for the first time ever, women farmers in Sudan have organized a union, enabling them to produce enough grains to provide at least a modest portion of the region’s food aid. Sudan’s Women Farmers Union is supported by MADRE in partnership with a Sudanese group called Zenab for Women in Development. At a time of great instability in Sudan, an improved U.S. food aid policy committed to buying locally and sustainably grown crops from small-holder women farmers could help give Sudanese women the resources they need to hold their communities together.

This past September, President Obama launched a new global development policy. In a speech at the United Nations, he said, “We must be more selective and focus our efforts where we have the best partners and where we can have the greatest impact.” Using our food aid dollars to support small-holder women farmers is a chance to do just that.