U.S. Food Aid's Costly Problem

Why It's Time to Eliminate Cargo Preference

U.S. humanitarian aid en route to Lebanon, in Amman, Jordan, August 2006. Muhammad Hamed / REUTERS

Conflicts across the Middle East have brought many in the region to the verge of starvation. The United States urgently needs to organize and deliver more food aid to hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Syria, northern Iraq, and refugee camps in the surrounding countries, particularly as the campaign against the Islamic State, or ISIS, intensifies.

Washington’s emergency food aid programs form the core of the world’s efforts to meet the basic needs of about 12 million displaced and desperate Syrians. Since 2011, emergency assistance from the United States to Syria has amounted to $2.3 billion, nearly four times more than what the European Union, the second-largest donor, provides.

But the support that the United States and other countries give does not come close to meeting Syria’s humanitarian needs. Last year, funding shortages forced the United Nations World Food Program to cut its food aid budget for Syrian refugees in Jordan by 50 percent. According to the 2016 UN Humanitarian Response Plan, donors have so far committed enough funding to meet only 38 percent of Syria’s humanitarian needs for this year. 

Container ships in Newark, New Jersey, June 2012.
Container ships in Newark, New Jersey, June 2012. Eduardo Munoz / REUTERS

Given the urgency of the humanitarian disaster in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agencies tasked with managing U.S. food aid programs, should strive to use their funds as effectively as possible. Yet through a number of burdensome regulations, Congress has severely restricted their efficiency.

The 2014 farm bill requires that USAID and the USDA source over 90 percent of all food aid from producers in the United States. It also requires that the government hire U.S.-flagged vessels to ship at least half of that aid abroad—a policy that is known as cargo preference. The cargo preference requirement is costly: U.S.-flagged vessels charge higher rates for shipments of food aid carried under the policy, since they face no competition from foreign-flagged vessels

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