Coalition Member Responds to Seattle Times

Transportation Institute Director of Operations, Rich Berkowitz, has responded to an editorial in the Seattle Times attacking food aid and U.S.-flag shipping requirements.  The response from Mr. Berkowitz follows:


As an admirer of travel author Rick Steves and his viewpoint that it is critical for Americans to engage with people in other lands, I was disappointed in his imbalanced June 4 editorial on how best to use American taxpayer funds to reduce world hunger. The U.S. taxpayer has always supported the idea that U.S. foreign aid should consist of U.S. goods carried by U.S. ships whenever possible. This is basic fairness at work – and good politics as well because foreign aid divorced from U.S. constituencies is likely to atrophy because programs without strong support are cut to fund programs with strong backing.

Left unmentioned was U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) recent policy shift from working collaboratively with U.S. agriculture and transportation interests to secure congressional funding and support for foreign aid programs to one of antagonism. Furthermore, a reader would get the impression from the editorial the requirement for 75 percent of USAID food aid to be shipped, for a fair and reasonable price, on U.S.-flag commercial vessels with U.S. crews is some nefarious slight-of-hand. This responsible policy existed from 1985 to 2012 and remains a reliable pipeline of U.S. commodities and safe nutritionally-fortified foods to developing countries to meet emergency needs while supporting U.S. jobs and industry.

The use of American ships and crews and, by extension U.S. agriculture commodities and foodstuffs, remains a worthy method to help ensure U.S. Treasury dollars are spent in an appropriate, transparent, and resourceful manner. Using such funds to also benefit the American economy, help maintain an American commercial fleet and skilled mariners to assist our government in times of crisis and conflict, and assure our Nation gets recognition for its generosity is not abhorrence –its good policy. Many Americans don’t believe it serves our foreign policy objectives to have U.S. government aid delivered to North Korea, Sudan, or Somalia on COSCO ships (a Chinese government-owned company). U.S. ocean carriers need not apologize that they charge fair and reasonable rates that can be greater than rates charged by foreign carriers – U.S. carriers pay fair U.S. wages and provide reasonable U.S. benefits, and they and their crews all pay U.S. taxes – foreign carriers don’t.

I often hear of U.S. crews deeply affected by the dramatic poverty they encounter overseas and frequently assist in local philanthropic efforts. This is a humanizing touch to our government aid efforts. Further, I am reminded of two Seattle merchant mariners who, along with their captain, were awarded the Nansen Medal, the highest honor for humanitarian efforts on behalf of refugees (similar to the Nobel Peace Prize) by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. These mariners were aboard a vessel, typically engaged in delivering USAID bulk grain, which stopped to pick up nearly 90 Vietnamese “boat people” refugees whose small boat was adrift in the South China Sea without food and soon to run out of water. Despite many other vessels passing them by and avoiding the trouble and expense of being responsible for so many refugees, this U.S.-flag vessel stopped amidst a gathering storm. In heavy seas, while attempting to board all the refugees via a rope ladder several of them fell off and began to drift away. The two seamen, who were later awarded the Nansen Medal, jumped into the turbulent waters at the risk of their own lives and managed to save a father and young son along with another refugee. Certainly, these examples of assistance “provide a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served” –one of the declared goals of the Peace Corps and an extension of American goodwill.

An element of international development work not mentioned in the Steves editorial is the need to manage risks of fraud and corruption. This is a widespread reality and great challenge. By procuring transportation services and agricultural products through U.S. firms our government increases transparency, reduces fraudulent practices, and diminishes risks of corruption. What has differentiated U.S. food aid programs for decades and remains the touchstone of their success is this trusted U.S. element. If there are issues U.S. firms can be held accountable. This remains dubious for other vendors.

With so much turmoil in Congress and calamities around the globe, eliminating the U.S. components of food aid is not the answer to sustaining reliable and beneficial emergency hunger initiatives funded through the goodwill of the U.S. taxpayer.