Potentially damaging food aid reform cut from Coast Guard bill

Credit: Carol Han, OFDA

Advocates for international food aid claimed victory this week after the Senate cut a provision that they say would have hurt efforts to deliver food effectively to people in need around the world. The new version of the bill passed both the Senate and House on Wednesday.

The provision – tucked away in the Howard Coble Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2014 and passed the House earlier this week – transferred authority to enforce the 50 percent cargo preference requirement over to the United States Maritime Administration, or MARAD. The current requirement states that half of all food aid must be sent on U.S.-flagged ships, but the proposal could further disrupt an already troubled food aid system, advocates warned.

It was expected that Senators Chris Coons, D-Del., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., would mount an opposition to the provision. Needing unanimous consent to pass the bill in the Senate, the two Senators leveraged their colleagues to remove the provision.

“InterAction is very pleased that this harmful provision was removed from the bill and that U.S. international food aid programs will not be negatively impacted as a result,” said the organization representing NGOs in Washington, D.C., in a statement to Humanosphere. “Sens. Corker and Coons, as well as many other offices in the House and Senate, were instrumental in protecting the integrity and reach of these vital programs and ensuring that hungry people will continue to receive lifesaving assistance.”

For more than half a century, the cargo preference rule for U.S. food aid meant that a certain percentage had to be sent on U.S.-flagged vessels. The 50 percent requirement was raised to 75 percent in 1985 and lowered back to 50 percent in 2012. Food aid reformists say that the lower rate allows for greater flexibility when a crisis hits and food aid is needed. The provision would have tweaked the rule so that the MARAD would be in control of applying the rule.

Aid groups worried that such a change would eliminate the flexibility that was hard won in 2012. The rule as it stands applies to all food aid shipments. If MARAD took control, it could interpret the rule to mean 50 percent for every country. Doing so would lead to a de-facto increase in the amount of food aid shipped by U.S. vessels. It would be a great gain for the shipping industry, but a potentially damaging blow to the delivery of food aid.

“Food aid is not about transportation or helping shipping companies, food aid needs to be about helping hungry people,” said Ryan Quinn, senior policy analyst for Bread for the World, to Humanosphere about the bill last week.

Advocates will now return their focus improving the old food delivery system. They run up against a still-powerful shipping lobby. Previous attempts to further reduce the need for food aid to be sent by sea have failed. Both the White House and the United States Agency for International Development staked out a stance to reform food aid, but change is slow.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.