As USAID tries to reform itself, it has been broadsided by an array of other criticisms, including reports highlighting problems in the global food aid system.

Some of the most devastating critiques have come from the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, the independent watchdog arm of Congress responsible for investigating how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.

GAO, in fact, has issued critical reports of USAID for decades, saying its food aid efforts have been fragmented and uncoordinated.

GAO found that USAID faces significant challenges in maintaining quality controls throughout the long and tortuous supply chain. It has also had serious problems in funding development projects through the purchase, shipment, and overseas sale of U.S. commodities. That process is known as monetization, and GAO – and other critics – say it is so inefficient that it reduced the funding available for development assistance projects by $219 million over a recent 3-year period. Monetization, like emergency food aid shipments, can also be harmful, GAO says, because it can swamp regional markets and put local farmers out of business.

Several recent GAO reports have been especially critical, concluding that USAID doesn’t even know if many of its key programs are working effectively because it lacks the kind of basic oversight mechanisms needed to track and evaluate them.

In 2012, the watchdog agency blasted USAID for what it said were significant failures in its efforts to target food assistance effectively to vulnerable groups, and ensure that food aid gets to those who need it most. Effective targeting is critically important in order to maximize the impact of limited resources, GAO said, but even more important as USAID begins to use more nutritious but costly specialized food aid products like RUSFs. It concluded the program was significantly undermined by weaknesses in the design, monitoring and evaluation phases of the targeting effort.

For instance, USAID didn’t provide significant guidance to the many aid groups that distribute its food on whether and how to target specialized food products. It also wasn’t monitoring actual recipients in its emergency programs, and its evaluations “do not systematically address targeting effectiveness,” GAO said.

In 2014, GAO criticized both USAID and USDA for the failure of a $187 million program that had been established the year before to manage the sprawling U.S. international emergency food aid procurement system. Known as the Web Based Supply Chain Management system, it was supposed to allow the two agencies to work together on tracking food aid shipments, since USDA procures the food and USAID doles it out. That includes procuring ocean freight for bulk commodities and managing food inventories, including those prepositioned at sites overseas for quick distribution in emergencies.

When initial problems arose, USAID ditched the system but USDA kept it, leading to a situation in which the two agencies lacked basic information about the cost, timeliness and effectiveness of food aid shipments, GAO said. The watchdog agency noted that despite its efforts to get the two agencies to cooperate more, “USDA and USAID are not collaborating effectively to resolve their disagreement on the usefulness of WBSCM.”

“Specifically, USDA and USAID do not agree on the roles and responsibilities of key participants in the process, do not share a defined outcome for their collaboration, and do not have a written agreement stating how the agencies will collaborate,” GAO concluded.

GAO also sharply criticized USAID’s much-touted network of prepositioning warehouses, which Congress established in 2000 to help speed the delivery of U.S. food aid by setting up warehouses at strategic U.S. and overseas locations. USAID orders food before it is needed and stores it in warehouses in or near regions with historically high needs.

And while prepositioning can shave a month or two off of the long delivery times of U.S. aid shipments, it is costing U.S. taxpayers potentially tens of millions a year in extra storage, shipping and commodity costs, GAO found. But the auditors said they couldn’t ascertain the true extent of the problem. The reason: USAID “does not systematically monitor the total cost of prepositioning.”

Overall, “According to USAID policy and federal internal control standards, the agency should monitor its programs by collecting and analyzing data to guide higher-level decision making and allocate resources,” GAO said. “Without such monitoring, USAID is limited in its ability to assess prepositioning’s impact on delivery time frames and costs and to maximize emergency food aid’s timeliness and cost effectiveness.”

In each of those cases, USAID officials concurred with most, if not all, of GAO’s findings and pledged to fix the problems.

Thomas Melito, the GAO auditor responsible for most of the critical audits of USAID, said in an interview that USAID’s recent successes in pushing through at least some reforms present it with perhaps its biggest challenge yet. USAID had been doing things the old way for so long, he says, that it now lacks a clear way forward, and will have to make major changes on the fly, and without a blueprint or room for failure.

“Getting the flexibility is only the beginning of the challenge,’’ said Melito, GAO’s director of International Affairs and Trade Issues. “Their number one problem now is gaining the expertise needed to understand how to integrate and maximize these new flexibilities as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

“When do you preposition, and when do you use vouchers or procure locally? Every one of these has daunting challenges, and they have to figure it out,” he said. “There’s no obvious answer here.”