Food Aid Follies

Shipping regs vs. charity


As a make-work project for American shipping, Washington requires certain percentages of government cargo, including international food aid, to sail the seas in U.S.-flagged ships.

That isn't always the most cost-effective method, which means those protectionist laws make food aid more expensive and less helpful than it otherwise could be, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found in an August study. Over just the four years between 2011 to 2014 the regulations "increased the overall cost of shipping food aid by an average of 23 percent, or $107 million."

Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) run such aid programs. But because a court order holds the USDA to a more stringent interpretation of the shipping requirements, "USAID was able to substantially increase the proportion of food aid awarded to foreign-flag vessels, which on average have lower rates, helping to reduce its average shipping rate. In contrast, USDA was able to increase the proportion of food aid awarded to foreign-flag vessels by only a relatively small amount." In other words, the latter agency is able to help fewer people with the same level of resources.

One justification for the rule is to ensure that the U.S. controls enough cargo ships that we would be able to deploy assets, like troops or supplies, during a national emergency. Yet the GAO also found that despite the program's avowed purpose, its "contribution to sealift capacity is uncertain."