Senate bill may limit transparency, effectiveness in transporting US-sourced food aid

A beneficiary of USAID food assistance in Sudan. According to the 1954 Cargo Preference Act, fifty percent of all U.S.-sourced food aid must be transported on U.S.-flagged commercial vessels. Photo by: USAID / CC BY-NC-SA

Two sections buried within a lengthy maritime reauthorization bill that is moving through the U.S. Congress have some emergency food aid NGOs up in arms.

Sections 316 in H.R. 4005, which passed the House in April and 321 of H.R. 5769, which passed the House on Wednesday, would give the U.S. Secretary of Transportation — through the Maritime Administration or MARAD — unilateral authority in the interpretation and application of cargo requirements, instead of consulting relevant aid agencies as is done now.

“MARAD is not like USAID or other development bodies; its mandate is to increase the competitiveness of the U.S. shipping industry,” Katie Lee, policy manager at InterAction, told Devex.

Fifty percent of all U.S.-sourced food aid must be transported on U.S.-flagged commercial vessels, according to the 1954 Cargo Preference Act, a law designed to help protect the U.S. cargo business against cheaper, international shipping companies.

The Department of Transportation’s own statistics show that shipping with foreign vessels costs half, and sometimes a third of the cost of shipping on U.S. vessels. Many development professionals have long argued that the law is inefficient, and forces aid implementers to overspend on shipping, when those resources could be used to feed more people.

And the law currently waiting for a Senate vote could add insult to injury — MARAD would be empowered to interpret the 50 percent rule without input or expertise from the nongovernmental organizations and aid agencies that develop food programs.

“It tips the balances in favor of the shipping side of things, and we’re concerned about the impact on potential beneficiaries,” Lee explained. “Because of the entrenched [business] interests seen in the past, and the mandate we know MARAD has, it’s a provision we’re hoping we can fight against.”

In the past, USAID and others have adhered to the 50 percent rule by looking at the entire portfolio of emergency food aid, and ensuring that half of it is shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels. This bill could allow MARAD to interpret the 50 percent rule differently and thus apply the rule per country or per vessel, even on shipments to countries where U.S.-flagged ships don’t currently go.

“Aid agencies would then have to pay for private charters or other transport, and that’s more costs that mean less food getting to hungry people,” Ryan Quinn, senior policy analyst at Bread for the World, told Devex.

The bill is likely to receive a Senate vote on Friday or early next week, and because time is running out for the 113th Congress, could be hurried through with unanimous consent.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of U.S. aid, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

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