Food Fight: Why Does the US Knowingly Slow Down Food Aid Distribution?

CREDIT: Anna Lande
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Approximately 13 million people in the Horn of Africa need critical food assistance right now. Kenyan, Ethiopian, and Somali citizens are experiencing the driest weather in a decade. And conflicts across the region are further restricting food supply chains, according to the World Food Programme. In fact, the conditions in Ethiopia look horribly similar to the famine experienced in the 1980s. Unlike the 1980s, this familiar tragedy is easily preventable. When people in war zones starve, countries that offer humanitarian aid have enough stored food to stop imminent death.

The main obstacle of getting wheat, corn, and life-saving proteins from point A to B is governments. The government of the United States is no exception. An outdated transportation rule preventing in-kind aid from quickly reaching famine areas is costly and lethal. An upcoming revision of The Global Food Security Reauthorization Act in FY23 provides a window for necessary change. 

Weaponized Famine

US experts predicted food insecurity in the Horn of Africa. Droughts were expected and locust infestations were reaching Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Uganda. Less predictable were the alarming effects of Ethiopia’s civil conflict. Since 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has restricted food aid distribution into Ethiopia’s northernmost state, Tigray. In other words, the Ethiopian government weaponized famine, and it was successful. The World Food Programme (WFP) predicts that 5.4 million Ethiopians that live in Tigray are reaching a severe hunger threshold.

In the case of Ethiopia, food aid channels are disrupted by political actors. Notably, the Ethiopian government delayed aid operations by blocking permissions, blacking out communications equipment for humanitarian organisations, not granting humanitarian visas, and failing to open aid corridors. The government blames the rebels, and the rebels say the government is not allowing food to enter famine sites. Nevertheless, when trucks cannot enter a starving state, one solution might be to circumvent traditional convoys and airdrop food aid. This necessary move, however, is partly restricted by the cargo preference. 

Where the Cargo Preference Fails

“More funding is needed to improve political security, but we need local authorities committed to fixing the crisis,” Will Davison, Senior Ethiopia Analyst for the International Crisis Group said.  “Agencies in and out of the country need to be clear about what systemic bureaucratic obstructions WFP is facing.” Localised obstructions like the cargo preference. 

All U.S. foreign food aid distribution is bound to a cargo preference. The preference requires 50% of literal food aid or in-kind aid to be shipped to beneficiaries on US owned transport. Purchasing vehicles for the US government leads to higher transportation costs and longer delivery times. A Congressional Research Service report published last year found that the cargo preference increased the cost of shipping by 23%. That came to approximately $107 million. With the cost of shipping aid rising, so too will the cost of the aid itself. 

The Cargo Preference Act of 1954 is a Cold War holdover. The sponsors of the bill noted vehicles owned by the US would contribute to military readiness when distributing aid. Congressional researchers found little evidence to support this assertion. The cargo preference has had less scrutiny over the decades, perhaps due to the precedence of aid policies that provide cash vouchers to support the distribution and growth of domestic food markets, like the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP). Cash vouchers, however, are incapable of providing relief when the government has shut off bank access for two years, as in the case of Ethiopia.

The US and other governments’ only path to relieve starvation is physically delivering in-kind aid, as ratified by Title II: Food for Peace. In the meantime, the cargo preference passively kills. Lower shipments, higher food costs, and increased starvation all lead to greater destabilisation of Ethiopia—a critical security partner in the Horn.

How to Detangle US Distribution Channels

This spring is a particularly tough time to ask the congressional appropriations committees to dig up more humanitarian funding. The war in Ukraine tightly holds US attention. For good reason, beyond household devastation and geopolitical tightropes, Ukraine is a breadbasket. If Ukrainian ports are lost, wheat that would go to the Horn of Africa through aid channels takes a hit. Still, when policymakers only look to Ukraine, the rest of the world does not resolve itself. 

In comparison to the funding sent to Ukraine, the $337 million the WFP predicts is necessary to bring the Horn down from the brink of starvation is a drop in the bucket. The US government generally covers 30-40% of WFP aid requests. They are the largest and often the only donor when other countries do not deliver. “External actors working with the Ethiopian government have taken the approach to do things privately, but they ought to revisit the rationale for keeping things private. Opening up operations would help to clarify the situation,” Davison said. 

The US can and must address the outdated cargo preference to allow more local transport to deliver grains and proteins. A possible method to revise the cargo preference is through The Global Food Security Reauthorization Act, which is set to expire in fiscal year 2023. Another option is to create standalone legislation that opens up more local transportation to ship food aid. The stand-alone legislation could look like an addendum to the Food for Peace Modernization Act (S. 2551, H.R. 5276) or the annual Agriculture and SFOPS Appropriations Acts for FY23. 

Shocks are unpredictable and disrupt peacetime food security programs. The technological and educational nutrition partnerships made by the US in the Horn of Africa are lost when food aid cannot reach the beneficiaries. It is more shameful when those meaningful partnerships are further deteriorated by inefficient US policy. By addressing the cargo preference and streamlining emergency food aid distribution, the US will support a quicker recovery and be able to better assist future food insecurity to partners in the Horn, and also beyond to Afghanistan, Yemen, Ukraine.

Until then, the US’s policy “food fight” is jeopardising 13 million lives. 

Anna Leah Lande (@annaleahande) is a Master of Global Affairs student at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School and former Agriculture Nutrition Specialist for Peace Corps Ethiopia in South Tigray.

Maggie Kmetz (@maggiekmetz) is also a Master of Global Affairs student at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School where she advocates for gender justice and human rights, especially for women and LGBTQ+ communities. 

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