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Congress sneaks damaging U.S. food aid provision in Coast Guard bill

Maersk Iowa, a US flagged vessel. (Credit: kees torn/flickr)

The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would set back food aid reform. A provision sneaked into the act would change the agency that oversees cargo preference requirements for food aid shipments. Advocates warn that the proposal pits food aid delivery against a mandate to strengthen the U.S. shipping industry.

The provision – tucked away in the Howard Coble Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2014 (H.R. 5769) – transfers 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 warn.

“Any change has an impact on how food reaches people on the ground,” said Katie Lee, policy manager for InterAction, an organization composed of more than 180 NGOs, in an interview with Humanosphere. “MARAD is mandated with strengthening the U.S. shipping industry. They should have a role in how food aid is shipped, obviously, but it should be an equal partnership with the organizations implementing food aid programs, like the United States Agency for International Development. They need to have a say in how those laws are interpreted.”

The bill was suddenly introduced late Monday and passed easily in the House of Representatives. Lee is concerned that if the bill passes as it is through the Senate that U.S. food aid will face new obstacles to reach the people who need the support. Ryan Quinn, senior policy analyst for Bread for the World, agrees with Lee. He, too, would like to see the provision changed so that it does not affect food aid delivery.

“Our concern is that food aid needs to be done in the best way possible,” Quinn told Humanosphere. “We’d like to see a lot more flexibility to do implementation of food aid on a case-by-case basis so you can reach people in the best way possible.”

Bread for the World, InterAction and dozens of NGOs have campaigned to reform the current U.S. food aid system. Incremental changes have relaxed a once-rigid system that had required food be produced in the United States and sent by U.S.-flagged ships. Campaigners say the emergence of complex aid problems demand flexibility. Quinn pointed to Syria as an example where refugees are fleeing for neighboring countries.

Shipping food via boat can be slow and costly. Changing the shipping requirements could lead to more slow-downs. Shifting power to the shipping companies might result in even more food aid sent on U.S.-flagged ships, even if the ships can’t physically reach areas in need.

“How effective is delivering food aid by sea to Syrian border countries like Jordan and Turkey?” he asked. “You have to have flexibility to provide food. For example, a food voucher program allows money to go back into the local economy.”

There is hope that the provision will not pass. The White House came out against a prior version of the provision when it was published earlier in the year. Lee says that analyses show the new provision is not a marked change from the earlier one that the administration opposed. To get through the Senate, the bill will require a unanimous consent before there is a vote.

Fortunately for advocates, Sens. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, and Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, are vocal supporters of food aid reform. They were key to the effort to reduce cargo preference rates from 75 percent to 50 percent in 2012. There is still opposition to the reduction with members of Congress trying to return to the 75 percent rate. Corker and Coons are worried that the rules change is a de-facto way to raise the rate.

“It’s obviously something that takes us in the wrong direction, exactly the opposite direction that, as you read it, you’d think it would,” said Corker on Wednesday. “It’s written in a very clever way. It makes it look like you’re taking [the cargo preference]from 75 [percent]to 50 [percent], but the practicality is you probably drive it north of where it is today.”

Coons made it clear that he is willing to use his dissent and the need for unanimous consent as leverage to change the provision. He and advocates believe, in the end, food aid rules are meant to be about the people who need the aid.

“Food aid is not about transportation or helping shipping companies, food aid needs to be about helping hungry people,” said Quinn.


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]