Food aid in need of rescue
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. 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.
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. 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.
When pirates seized the Maersk Alabama in April 2009, the ship — with Capt. Richard Phillips in charge — was carrying, according to a spokesman, 8,000 metric tons of American vegetable oil, bulgur wheat, corn-soya blend and dehydrated vegetables to the U.N. World Food Programme in Mombasa, Kenya.
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 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 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.
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.
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. 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, 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. 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.
So 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.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post's editorial board.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Steelers’ Harrison eyes stretch run
- Steelers notebook: Tomlin ends practice with third-down work
- Penguins co-owner Lemieux snuffs rumored rift with Crosby
- Warrants issued for women accused of prostitution in New Stanton sting
- NFL notebook: Gifford had CTE, family says
- Starkey: Artie Rowell’s incredible odyssey
- Russia’s crackdown in predominantly Muslim region fuels exodus to ISIS
- Pirates sign free agent 1B-OF Goebbert, RHP Webster
- Pizza delivery woman robbed in Greensburg
- Obama signs $607B Defense bill but blasts GOP limits for Gitmo
- Emotional send-off awaits Pitt seniors