The U.S. government and its citizenry pour hundreds of millions of dollars into hunger relief each year. Unfortunately, more than a few charities have an abysmal rate of return, and American policies often put the interests of industries at home over the needs of the starving abroad.
To reverse this trend in the long run, according to a recent report by the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, reforming U.S. policy needs to be a priority. For starters, the government could stop mandating that 75 percent of food aid be 'made in the USA,' which is inefficient and costly. Retooling a lumbering government bureaucracy is a tall order, though, and it will take the sort of time and political will that the hungry world can ill afford. In the meantime, individual donors can take steps to make sure their cash is used wisely.
First, find out how a charity is spending donations. You can look through charities' IRS forms at GuideStar.org. Or you can let others crunch the numbers for you at CharityNavigator.org, the Better Business Bureau's Give.org, or the American Institute of Philanthropy's CharityWatch.org. Mention in an e-mail or phone call that you're an Utne reader, and AIP will send you its $3 ratings guide for free.
Then look for organizations that have experience in a region. Are they dumping dubious donations from corporations that wanted to get rid of inventory and get a tax break? Or are they involving the local community and being sensitive to the area's economy? One such model is Oxfam's work in Niger, where it stabilizes the price of livestock by buying local animals at a premium. The people get cash to buy food, and Oxfam gains access to livestock.
Another tip: Give what's needed, where it's needed most. Americans respond to media coverage of disasters, as was the case with the Asian tsunami and continues to be true on the Gulf Coast. But there are plenty of 'forgotten emergencies.' Ask a charity where it needs help and why. And remember, health care, education, clean water, and domestic agricultural development are all central to creating long-term food security and averting crises before they happen.