White House Says 'Not Yet' to Zoellick's 'New Deal'

Although Robert Zoellick served in the Bush Administration as U.S. Trade Representative before being tapped last year to be president of the World Bank, the White House is not buying into his much-ballyhooed — and possibly very costly –“New Deal” for grappling with the world food crisis. Not yet, anyway, according to White House Press Secretary Dana Perino.

In closing the recent Spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Zoellick on Sunday spoke of the world food crisis and a “New Deal” — his term — with which the international financial community can deal with it.

“Part of that New Deal is meeting the immediate crisis and the needs of those who are now facing hunger, malnutrition, and even starvation across the world,” Zoellick told reporters at the IMF/World Bank meeting. He had just come from the working lunch of the Development Committee which, Zoellick said, “endorsed the New Deal, and. . .called on donors to fill the $500 million feeding gap identified by the World Food Program.”

“We have to put our money where our mouth is now so that we can put food into hungry mouths. It’s as stark as that.”

Citing the food riots in Haiti and the fall of the Haitian government the date before, the Bank president said that this “underscores the importance of quick international action. We at the World Bank are granting an additional $10 million to Haiti for feeding programs, and I understand that others are looking to help.” 

“We are also responding to a number of other countries with conditional cash transfer programs, food for work, planting for a new season; and we are looking at how we can step up that support as part of short-term and medium-term actions. The World Food Program has asked countries to respond to its appeal for $500 million by May 1, and we have double-checked and had just received indications of commitments for almost half of the money that it requires. But that’s not enough.”

Joining Zoellick at the closing press conference and endorsing his “New Deal” was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. The former French finance minister known as “DSK” pointed out that “[o]ur teams are already working with a long list of African governments and some Latin American governments on what kind of of policy can be undertaken to just cope in the short run with what is going on.”  He added that “we are favoring a solution which goes through direct subsidies to the poor — the poorest part of the population.”

Summarizing the points made by Zoellick about his “New Deal” and the figures on the aid packages to Haiti and other countries now in need, I asked Perino at this morning’s gaggle (early morning briefing for White House reporters) if this was something the United States supports and whether there was a cost-benefit ratio for U.S. donations to such a project.

“Let me talk about the issue of food and the world situation, especially with the shortages that we’re seeing in many places,” replied the President’s top spokesman. 

“The President talked about this at length in the Cabinet meeting. He is very concerned.  He believes that developing nations [she later corrected herself and said she meant “developed nations”] have a responsibility to help those that are in need. The United States is the largest provider of food aid in the world. Just last year, in fiscal year 2007 we provided more than $2.1 billion of food aid that reached tens of millions of people worldwide.

“We are going through a process right now, looking at ways to meet some of the ongoing food needs of certain countries, beyond what has already been provided. And State Department — USAID, specifically — can give you details as to what countries are receiving what type of aid, and the percentages there.

Part of what we have proposed is buying food closer to the places that are most in need.  That’s one of the things the President talked about in the State of the Union, so we’ll be looking at that. But in addition to that, the President has raised the issue with his national security advisors, and he’s asked State and USAID to look at what can be done in the near term.”

Perino said she had no policy announcement or a new monetary announcement “but if we can get that over the next couple of days, we’ll get it for you.”

Did her rather long reply mean there was on definitive endorsement of Zoellick’s “New Deal,” I asked. 

“On his specific proposal?,” she replied. 

“Yes,” I said.

“Not yet,” Perino told me, “But obviously we remain — I shouldn’t say "remain" — we are very concerned, and we are looking at what we can do in the short term as well as taking into consideration the long-term issue.”