By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON, Nov 24 (Reuters) - The U.S. government could stretch its foreign aid budget to help more of the world’s hungry if it overhauled its fragmented system for delivering the assistance, a food aid coalition said on Monday.
The $15 billion spent by the United States on aid would go further if there was a single agency held accountable for the efforts, said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a coalition of U.S. Christian aid groups.
"When the government is debating what to do about trade or diplomacy, we need somebody at the table in the highest councils of the U.S. government to speak for poor people," Beckmann said in an interview.
Right now, 12 departments, 25 agencies and almost 60 different government offices have a role in developing U.S. aid policy and delivering programs, he said.
Prices for food staples have more than doubled around the world, leaving more people impoverished and malnourished at a time when the United States and other major aid donors are fixated on stabilizing their own domestic economies.
But Beckmann said he is optimistic the incoming Barack Obama administration will see aid spending as an investment in both global security and future markets for U.S. exports.
The new administration will be led by people who have strong track records on global development issues, he said, specifically naming Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as well as New York Sen. Hillary Clinton who has reportedly been tapped to become U.S. secretary of state.
Several transition policy advisors to the president-elect have been advocates of foreign aid reform, Beckmann said, noting Obama himself has worked on global poverty issues.
"GREATEST CHALLENGE OF OUR TIME"
Food prices skyrocketed earlier this year, spurring riots and hoarding in some nations. The spike was caused by weather problems combined with surging demand for food and biofuels, along with soaring fuel costs for shipping and production.
Now, the global economic crisis is driving more people into poverty, exacerbating food shortages, said Joy Phumpahi, the World Bank’s vice president for human development.
"This is the greatest challenge of our time," Phumpahi told a news conference. "The development gains of the last decade -- maybe decades -- are at risk."
About 967 million people in the world don’t get enough food to eat, the World Bank has estimated, an increase of 44 million people from last year.
Governments have assured the World Bank that they will not cut back on aid, despite the credit crunch, Phumpahi said.
"What is really worrying us is whether we’re going to see a withdrawal of companies that are currently investing in the developing world," she said.
Aid groups are "getting squeezed" by shrinking donations from individuals and philanthropist foundations, who have seen the value of their investments plunge in recent months, said Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services.
"I‘m in the process right now of cutting (budgets), and I‘m probably going to cut about 15 percent by the end of this calendar year," Hackett said in an interview, explaining the cuts could mean less travel and fewer staff in parts of the world deemed to have less urgent needs. (Reporting by Roberta Rampton; editing by Jim Marshall)