In 2021, nearly 4 million people were assisted by the McGovern-Dole Food for Education program including 2.1 million school age children across the entire globe. Going into 2023 and 2024, there is reason for concern that this longstanding USDA democracy building initiative will die in the halls of Congress because of the gridlock hampering the passage of a federal budget.
If Republicans and Democrats are unable to agree on funding for the 2024 Farm Bill, the future of the McGovern-Dole food program remains uncertain. Congress was supposed to pass a budget before October, but continues to pass temporary solutions that allow the federal government to continue operating using last year’s budget with no new programs. Former President Trump proposed cutting the program all together in 2018, and during his administration the program’s funding was reduced. Furthermore, H.R.2293, a bill proposed in May of 2023 is intended to limit the availability of funds for the McGovern-Dole program (Reynolds 1). This is especially concerning considering America’s increasingly isolations domestic views in younger voters (UPenn 1).With Republicans already gunning for the program, a 2024 Republican presidential candidate because of domestic and international attention to foreign aid in Ukraine and Israel may take an isolationist position regarding America’s role in the global order. This trend is particularly concerning because it seems support for international aid is becoming split along party lines. A recent poll found that a majority of Republicans believe that the U.S. is doing too much to support Ukraine while the majority of Democrats support aiding Ukraine (Axios 1). Considering the party’s track record with attempting to cut the program in combination with an increasingly isolationist domestic political body, it seems likely that if the Republican Party secures victory in the 2024 election that the McGovern-Dole program will be on the chopping block. In an era of democratic backsliding, decreasing domestic support for international aid programs, and with strong authoritarian competition abroad, programs like the McGovern-Dole are incredibly important for balancing Chinese and Russian soft power abroad and for continued democracy promotion across the globe at little cost to the taxpayer.
Before explaining how cutting the program will create space for democratic backsliding, it is important to understand exactly what the McGovern-Dole Food for Education program does.The McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program has two main objectives: to decrease hunger in developing countries and to improve literacy and education particularly for young girls.. Additionally, the program focuses on providing nutrition for infants, pregnant women, and preschoolers. The program does this by providing donated U.S. agricultural commodities and through technical and financial assistance. Since its inception, the program has improved educational and food access for over 30 million school-aged children with over 5.5 billion meals provided (World Food Program USA 1). In 2021, a study was conducted by a range of political scientist to test the effectiveness of the McGovern-Dole program and the authors found that there was statistically significant evidence that the program did increase literacy in Guatemala and Honduras (Crea et al. 1). This means at the very least, even if it fails to promote democracy, is increasing educational attainment in developing countries and decreasing poverty through the provision of school meals.
The McGovern-Dole program promotes democracy in several different ways. Namely, a stated goal of the program is to promote democracy and it does this through embedding democratic values into student learning and through building up communal capacity. First, it promotes education which is beneficial for both building sustained democracies but also for stability in existing democracies. Education provides several benefits for democracy: through classroom participation and knowledge building it promotes political participation, it instills democratic values promoting democratic culture, and most importantly it promotes interpersonal socialization and the exchange of ideas (Glaeser et al. 1). The program also builds civic groups through the promotion of parent teacher associations. These PTA groups in combination with improved infrastructure create a baseline for what is accepted by these communities. The promotion of PTA groups increases civic engagement in adults. A core function of the program is to not only increase food access and literacy, but also to empower citizens to make demands from their government through peaceful lanes (Reynolds 1). It does this through improving educational infrastructure, the promotion of PTAs, and through a transition of power. The program is not controlled indefinitely by USAID, but rather after certain metrics are met the reigns of control are handed off to local or national governments. As well, because the program is designed to bring school-aged girls into the classroom, it has a unique effect on democracy that other U.S. aid programs often do not. This is that as young girls attain education there is decades of research that shows improving education for girls increase political participation for society at large and this does not even include the massive economic benefits for young girls that receive education (Reynolds 1).
The program effectively acts as a bulwark against anti-democratic influence. Through the promotion of education, the program instills democratic values in the youth across developing nations. Since 2013, China has greatly expanded its foreign aid efforts with initiatives like the Belt and Road project. Russia has also great expanded their foreign aid programs. A major cut or removal of the program will create a vacuum in food and education aid for millions of people that may well be filled by the not-so democratic People’s Republic of China (Reynolds 1).
Tell your representatives to not cut funding to the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program!
Crea, Thomas M., et al. “The McGovern-Dole Food For Education and child nutrition program (MGD): A comparative analysis of reading comprehension gains in Central America.” World Development Perspectives, vol. 21, 2021, p. 100288, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wdp.2021.100288.
Glaeser, Edward. “Why Does Democracy Need Education? – Scholars at Harvard.” Harvard, 2007, scholar.harvard.edu/shleifer/files/democracy_final_jeg.pdf.
Kight, Stef. “Poll: U.S. Public’s Support for Ukraine Begins to Wane – Axios.” Axios, 2023, www.axios.com/2023/11/02/poll-americans-support-ukraine-republicans.
Reynolds , Sarnata. “McGovern-Dole Program Alleviates Hunger, Protects Democracy, and Bolsters U.S. Trade.” Center for American Progress, 7 Sept. 2023, www.americanprogress.org/article/mcgovern-dole-program-alleviates-hunger-protects-democracy-and-bolsters-u-s-trade/#:~:text=The%20McGovern%2DDole%20program%20is%20designed%20to%20develop%20and%20embed,to%20local%20and%20national%20governments.
“Tell Congress to Support International School Meals.” World Food Program USA, 2023, secure.wfpusa.org/form/McGovernDole-2023_WEB_ADV.
“Which Americans Are Most Isolationist? It May Not Be Who You Think.” Penn Today, University of Pennsylvania , 2023, penntoday.upenn.edu/news/asc-which-americans-are-most-isolationist-it-may-not-be-who-you-think.