Celia Dugger, my favorite New York Times reporter, had another knock-out article in yesterday’s paper. Titled “African Food for Africa’s Starving Is Roadblocked in Congress,” the piece lays out the absurd tangle of laws that govern the United States’ food-aid program.

Rather than send money to Africa to buy food from African farmers to relieve hunger there, generating a little economic development in the process, U.S. policy stipulates that “American generosity must be good not just for the world’s hungry but also for American agriculture,” Dugger reports.

Thus all U.S. food aid must utilize food grown on domestic soil. But like another scheme designed to help farmers — the commodity-subsidy program – this one really benefits the middlemen, processors like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill.

Writes Dugger:

Just four companies and their subsidiaries, led by Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, sold more than half the $700 million in food commodities provided through the United States Agency for International Development’s food aid program in 2004, government records show.

These companies, along with U.S. shippers and anti-hunger NGOs, form what critics have called the “Iron Triangle” of food aid. Under the system they are fighting to maintain, only 40 cents of every dollar the U.S. spends on food aid actually buys food. Much of the rest literally goes up in smoke — it’s spent hauling U.S. grain to distant places.

The Bush administration is actually trying to reform the program; but Congress, impressed by the Triangle’s political might if not its arguments, is holding out.