The U.S. food-aid program is in need of rescue

Charles Lane / The Washington Post /


Reviewers are raving about “Captain Phillips,” the new film that tells the real-life story of an American cargo-ship captain taken hostage by Somali pirates. Having seen it, I can confirm that this flick’s got everything: suspense, high-seas adventure and brilliant acting by Tom Hanks.

Critics also praise “Captain Phillips” for evoking the common humanity of both its American hero and the Somali authors of his ordeal. Theirs is a clash of vastly different individuals and cultures — brought into collision by global commerce and the tremendous inequalities of wealth and power that it creates.

But if capitalism is at work in “Captain Phillips,” it’s a cronyistic version, not the free-market kind.

Thanks to the exertions of powerful lobbies, U.S. laws protect shipping and agribusiness at the expense of both American taxpayers and the world’s hungry.

Specifically, the largest U.S. food aid program must distribute only U.S.-produced commodities. And at least half of that food must travel on U.S.-flagged vessels. You don’t need a degree in economics to understand who profits from these rules: the American farmers, food processors, maritime unions, ship-owning companies and ports that enjoy a guaranteed flow of government business.

USA Maritime, a lobbying coalition, estimated this spring that international food aid accounts for 44,000 jobs in 28 states.

So it was that when pirates seized the 500-foot Maersk Alabama in April 2009, the ship — flying the Stars and Stripes, with Capt. Richard Phillips in charge of an American crew — was carrying, according to a spokesman, 8,000 metric tons of American-made vegetable oil, bulgur wheat, corn soya blend and dehydrated vegetables to the United Nations’ World Food Programme in Mombasa, Kenya.

Of course, the domestic rewards of international altruism have been invoked in favor of food aid since President Dwight Eisenhower said that global distribution of America’s bounty would “lay the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands.”

The problem is that special-interest carve-outs result in programs that feed fewer people at greater cost than might otherwise be the case.

The set-aside for U.S.-flagged vessels jacks up transportation costs. If there were no buy-American rule for the food commodities, the United States could purchase from the cheapest, most convenient source — possibly in Africa. Instead of dumping our bumper crops on their markets, Washington could provide an incentive for African farmers to invest and produce, improving self-sufficiency on that continent.

Under current law, at least 15 percent of U.S. food aid (and, in practice, usually more) must be “monetized.” This means that once a U.S.-flagged vessel gets the commodities to Africa, they are resold on local markets by nongovernmental organizations, which use the cash to fund development projects.

“Monetization” makes about as much sense as mailing your temporarily broke pal a large parcel of food with instructions to sell it and spend the proceeds on job training. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office found that, over a three-year period, the program resulted in $219 million being spent on commodities and shipping that otherwise would have been available for development projects.

For all these reasons, President Obama proposed a wide-ranging reform of U.S. food aid programs in his 2014 budget, which was unveiled in April with bipartisan support in the form of a strong endorsement from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif.

The plan would have eliminated “monetization,” permitted greater purchases of locally grown commodities and reduced the “preference” for shipping on U.S.-flagged vessels. The idea was to help an additional 2 million to 4 million people, at about the same cost as the current programs.

Alas, there is no Hollywood ending to this story. Reform legislation has been blocked by the farm and maritime lobbies and the lawmakers from rural and coastal states who do their bidding.

Supporters of the status quo certainly can’t win the policy arguments. U.S. agriculture’s case against reform is especially weak; that heavily subsidized sector is booming, thanks in large part to commercial exports.

The maritime industry says that the cargo preference for U.S.-flagged vessels preserves a merchant marine fleet for use in a military crisis. But the Defense Department does not consider most of the relevant ships militarily useful. The Pentagon’s top logistics official, Frank Kendall, has said that the proposed reforms “will not impact U.S. maritime readiness and national security .”

See “Captain Phillips.” Thrill to the action; ponder its message. And consider the wasteful folly of U.S. food-aid policy, without which this gutsy seafarer and his men might not have been plying the dangerous waters off East Africa.