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American labor leaders push to starve millions more overseas

130604_usaid_food_boxes_reu_328The labor movement’s international solidarity with the poor only goes so far, it appears.

It’s May Day, aka International Workers Day, and the largest confederation of labor organizations in the United States, the AFL-CIO, is celebrating it by pushing for changes in federal law that will serve the interests of the maritime industry (and its labor unions) at the expense of about two million starving poor people overseas.

“This is an enormous step backward,” said Eric Muñoz, senior policy advisor at Oxfam America.

The step advocated by the AFL-CIO, in concert with many in the shipping industry, is to increase a federal requirement so that 75 percent of all food aid must be shipped on U.S. vessels. The proposed change from 50 percent, passed by the House on April Fools Day, was quietly inserted into routine legislation re-authorizing spending for the Coast Guard.

Flickr, Johan Fantenberg

The AFl-CIO did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this, but here’s the letter the labor group sent to members of Congress supporting the change:

“The bill includes a number of provisions that will strengthen the U.S. maritime industry, promote good and stable jobs in this sector and support military sealift needs,” said Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO.
Some media caught on to this a few weeks after the House passed the bill. Politico first noted it and the New York Times reported on how this change would impact the many millions of people around the world who depend on food aid. As a letter opposing the change from the Department of Homeland Security put it:
“This requirement would increase costs of shipping food aid by about $75 million or more, funding that would otherwise allow more than 2 million people – mainly those in emergency food crises – to receive life-saving food each year.”

As Humanosphere has reported ad nauseam over the past few years (see here, here and here also), the US government’s approach to food aid – ostensibly based on our nation’s desire to feed the poor and hungry – is incredibly inefficient and self-serving.

Unlike most other wealthy nations who ship food to help poor and disaster-struck communities overseas, the U.S. government is required by law to purchase most of the food from American farmers, load and ship it by American ships and, often, have it distributed in poor countries by American NGOs or humanitarian groups. This increases the cost of food aid and effectively reduces the amount of food aid we can deliver by millions of poor people every year.

And there are many tens of millions of people who need food aid, right now, in and around Syria, South Sudan and elsewhere.

Refugees in Damascus, Syria, waiting for food.
Refugees in Damascus, Syria, waiting for food.

The Obama Administration and specifically Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have sought to bring the country in line with other rich donor nations and allow more food aid to be purchased locally, or in neighboring nations closer to whatever crisis. Shah was able to get some changes made to the food aid system, allowing up to $80 million in food aid (not much compared to the entire food aid spending) and to reduce the use of a practice known as monetization – in which humanitarian groups are allowed to sell received food aid in poor countries to raise money for other development projects.

“We’ve made progress over the past year aimed at making food aid more efficient, and more in keeping with its original goal,” said Muñoz. The changes pushed by Shah still leave in place a highly inefficient and self-serving system of food aid, he acknowledged, but the increased allowance for local purchasing of food aid was a positive sign. He added that monetization is now limited to 15 percent, which is also a good step aimed at making sure taxpayers are getting most bang for the buck in this charitable endeavor.

Now, if this provision inserted into the Coast Guard re-authorization is passed by the Senate, Muñoz said we are effectively erasing many of the gains – and more importantly, allowing some two million hungry people in poor countries to stay hungry. In addition to Oxfam, a coalition of humanitarian groups have launched an opposition campaign to the provision.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.