Politics of Poverty

Pirates, Captain Phillips, and international food aid

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Hollywood loves pirates, but there are more in Washington than in Somalia.

BuzzList_v_tagThere is a serious damper on my leisure time activities: having two kids under 4 years of age. I don’t see many movies these days, but when Netflix gets it, I’m definitely going to check out Captain Phillips. It looks exciting and has drawn great reviews. And it’s done a good business, raking in $25 million in its first week, second only to breakout movie, Gravity.

I don’t think it comes up in the movie, but it’s interesting to note that the Maersk Alabama—the container ship which Somali pirates hijacked in 2009, the true story upon which is based—was carrying American food aid: 8000 metric tons of food aid according to one source, or 5000 metric tons bound for Somalia, Uganda and Kenya according to another. The ship was making the transit from Djibouti, a major staging point for the US food aid program, and Mombasa, a major transit point for food aid going to East Africa destinations, including Somali refugee camps.

Food aid has long been plagued by pirates. Two ships carrying food aid were hijacked in 2005, and again in 2007. Eventually, these ships are returned and the food aid recovered.

But too much US food aid never gets recovered. That’s because the piracy occurs long before food is loaded onto ships. Every year, huge volumes of food aid are lost to bandits, that is, the kind that wear expensive suits and walk the halls of Congress.

Americans generously provide about half of the world’s food aid, feeding millions of people in dire circumstances most of us can’t even imagine. But the food aid budget is a tempting target for special interests eager to “help” as long as they get paid handsomely. Congress is complicit in this banditry by imposing a maze of restrictions and requirements on food aid that end up benefiting the bandits, rather than hungry people.

Firstly, Congress requires food aid to be purchased from American farmers, even when food aid is available closer to where it is needed. Congress mandates that food aid be processed and bagged in the US, even when that is the costliest option. Congress also mandates that most food aid be shipped on US-flagged vessels, greatly adding to costs and delays, and leaving the food aid vulnerable to sea-born pirates.

All of these requirements exact a toll on the food aid program and the net result is a lot less food gets delivered to hungry people. Shipping commodities from the US can take as much as four months to reach those it is intended for. The maze of restrictions also increases the costs of food aid by 50 to 100 percent.

The piracy on the Potomac would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so grave. More than 40 million people rely on US food aid for life-saving aid. A reformed program might feed another 17 million people.

President Obama proposed a reform of the food aid program this year. Then the House of Representatives rejected the reform by a very narrow margin in June. That was a big disappointment.

But last weekend the reform effort received a new glimmer of hope. The leaders of the reform were appointed to the negotiating committee on the Farm Bill. Representatives Ed Royce and Eliott Engel, Chairman and ranking Democrat respectively of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, were appointed to help hammer out the relevant section of the Farm Bill.

In the wake of the government shut down and political crisis, President Obama called on Congress to cooperate and pass a Farm Bill. So the chances for a bill to be completed seem much higher than a few weeks ago.

This might be the opportunity to protect the US food aid program from American pirates.

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