Provision could limit U.S. food aid

Donated food in South Sudan from the United States Agency for International Development.

WASHINGTON — An obscure provision tucked inside a Coast Guard spending bill could prevent millions of people in troubled countries around the world from receiving American food aid and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in shipping costs, the Obama administration said this week.

The provision, which is included in the Senate version of a House bill that passed this month, would require that three-quarters of the United States food aid that is shipped to places like South Sudan be sent on American vessels, up from the one-half now required by law.

The administration, which has made overhauling the food aid program one of its top priorities, said the change would drastically increase the costs of shipping food aid overseas because it would limit the ability of the United States Agency for International Development, which runs the program, to use the most cost-effective shipping options available at the time of each shipment.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard, also warned in a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee that the bill “would have grave effects on United States humanitarian assistance programs.” The committee is still considering the bill.

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At the Obama administration’s request, Congress lowered the amount of food aid that had to be shipped on American vessels in 2012 over the objections of the shipping industry, which lobbied for the provision that is now included in the Coast Guard bill. Previously, three-quarters of food aid had to be shipped on American ships.

The administration has made several changes to the $1.4 billion food aid program to give the development agency the flexibility to buy less-expensive food closer to the areas where it is needed rather than shipping food from the United States, which can take months, and sometimes arrives too late to be of help. The United States remains the only major donor sending food to areas in the midst of humanitarian crises rather than buying food that is produced in the region itself.

The administration said the provision in the Coast Guard bill would prevent food aid from reaching about two million people annually and add $75 million a year to the program’s costs.

The amount of food that the United States sends abroad has already fallen because of rising shipping costs, and the administration worries that requiring a larger percentage of food to be shipped on American vessels could reduce shipments further.

“South Sudan’s crumbling food security and crises in Syria and the Central African Republic are the latest examples of the acute humanitarian needs that exist around the world today,” said Rajiv Shah, the aid agency’s administrator. “As we work swiftly to reach hungry people and save lives, this bill would only increase the cost of shipping emergency food aid.”

International charities and aid organizations, including Oxfam and the World Food Program U.S.A., that support the administration’s efforts said the provision, if it became law, would hamper efforts to modernize the program, which dates to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration.

“This is a dangerous example of how special interests, by slipping the provision in an unrelated spending bill, can tilt obscure federal policies in their favor at the expense of poor, vulnerable populations that need food, and American taxpayers,” said Gawain Kripke, policy director for Oxfam America. “All the reforms that have been made to the food aid program would be wiped out by this provision.”

Shipping industry representatives did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But in letters to Congress, industry officials said the food aid provision would protect American jobs and bolster the nation’s defense capabilities by keeping more of the merchant marine fleet on the world’s seas.

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The shipping industry is another out-sourced sector.  Ships are flagged in countries of convenience and staffed with the cheapest labour that can be found on the world market.  And people wonder why the middle class is shrinking?  Give me a break.

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