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Pirates Hinder Food Aid Shipments

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few moments, we heard it on the grapevine, South Africa is becoming famous for its wine. We talk about the rise of South African vineyards and get a taste of the country's best, that's coming up.

But first, we continue our international briefing. The only survivor of the attack on the Maersk-Alabama was charged in New York this week. It was the latest development in a story that has riveted many Americans, from the daring attack to the ingenuity of the crew and the courageous rescue of the ship's captain, Richard Phillips. The story might have been made even more dramatic by the fact that the ship was on a humanitarian mission, transporting emergency food aid to Kenya.

Another vessel, the Liberty Sun, was the target of a separate and unsuccessful pirate attack last week. The two ships are part of a steady flow of American ships carrying U.S. government provided food aid to Africa. And while the attack and rescue might be a great story, it does beg the larger question, is there a better way to get food to the people who need it most? To talk about that we called on Andrew Natsios. He was the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2001-2006.

He's now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He's a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. And he's one of the country's most experienced aid administrators. He's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome, thanks for talking to us.

Professor ANDREW NATSIOS (Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We called you because we know you have an opinion about this. But before we get to that, I wanted to ask you to tell us the scope of the issue. How much American food aid goes to Africa? How big is the sort of the transport over the course of a year?

Prof. NATSIOS: Well, about 70 percent of all food aid from the U.S. government goes - and most of it comes from USAID, goes to Africa and it's for emergency purposes, for the most part. Emergencies means a civil war, a famine, weather, locust plague. The programs have been going on since 1954, even before AID was founded, President Eisenhower signed the Food For Peace Act. PL480, it's called. And it's been a huge program for very long, millions of tons of food. Sixty percent of all the food that the World Food Program, which is the food agency of the United Nations, a very competent UN agency, I might add, comes from AID.

So, we are the principle supplier of food to the World Food Program and to large food aid NGO's like CARE and Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services, World Vision and, you know, they're the big food aid NGO's in the United States. It also provides food to people in difficult situations.

MARTIN: And, does the law require that the food actually come from the United States and be physically transported in U.S. ships, across the ocean…

Prof. NATSIOS: That is correct.

MARTIN: To Africa?

Prof. NATSIOS: That is correct. The food aid by, under PL480, since 1954, must be purchased in United States, put on U.S. ships and then transported wherever it's going in the world. The reality is that it takes about three to four months to ship the food and about 30 to 40 percent of the cost of the program is the cost to transport. So, I spoke to the White House, when I was administrator, I think it was in 2003, and I said this system really does not work very well. We need more flexibility and I'd like to propose that the president put in his budget that 25 percent of our food aid be purchased locally.

One, because it'll save money. We can buy more food. We don't have to pay for the transport costs if the food is being bought in a neighboring country. Two, it doesn't take four months to ship food to a country that's right next door.

MARTIN: And can I just say that I think a lot of American's are becoming used to this idea because in natural disasters, even in the United States, people say, well don't go around grabbing food out of your pantry, don't go to the supermarket and fill up a box, don't go to your closet and take your old clothes. It's expensive to transport even to, you know, New Orleans. Send money. Send money to the Red Cross and let them buy what they need locally. So, I think a lot of Americans understand the intrinsic logic, particularly when you're talking about…

Prof. NATSIOS: Right.

MARTIN: …such long distances. So when you went to the White House and said, let's change this, what did they say?

Prof. NATSIOS: I explained it to them and they said, let's do it. And they put it in and I had gotten an agreement from the leaders of the NGO community to support it. And the shipping interests were the leading opponents because they, you know, they're not going to ship the food anymore, so they didn't like it. The commodity groups that produce the food in United Stated didn't like it. The processing plants didn't like it. But we convinced the grain companies and the farmers in the Midwest, that only one third of one percent of all export of American food goes through Food For Peace. This is not going to effect prices, it's a tiny percentage, less than one percent.

And we're not proposing that the entire budget be local purchase. I think we, for major disasters where you have a continent-wide drought, for example, I think it's wise to have a base in the United States. But we need the flexibility. I'll tell you a story, that's a powerful story.

MARTIN: Well, before you do, tell me, what's the status quo? So you said that you got some buy in, you got some opposition. So, what's the status quo?

Prof. NATSIOS: Well, the status is, we could never get it through. The committee that controls the appropriation for PL480 is the Agriculture Committee in the Congress, which is heavily influenced by the agricultural interests, who of course are not wild about this idea. The committee for the rest of our aid program is the Foreign Affairs Operations Committee. They support this, in fact they put in an experimental program, pilot program for $60 million over five years. In other words, out of a $1.2 billion budget normally, they would allow $12 million for local purchases as an experiment.

And they had the U.S. Department of Agriculture manage the experiment, which is opposed to the program. In fact, the day I left as administrator to go teach at Georgetown, the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Trade Representatives Office went to OMB to take out that amendment. I called the White House up and said, how can we oppose this? If we think it's a good idea, I said, then order them to put it back in the budget, which is what they did. The president then proceeded, because he liked the idea, to put it in the State of the Union address to Congress. And then in his last general assembly speech to the UN in September of last year, he also mentioned local purchase. It's very popular in Africa. Obviously, heads of state would prefer the food to be purchased in Africa.

MARTIN: They prefer it to be closer by and also would support local production there, I would think that would prop up their industry. So, but no, but not yet?

Prof. NATSIOS: Does not yet but…

MARTIN: Not yet, no.

Prof. NATSIOS: But it is growing. There is more and more movement. A number of the NGO's that actually did not support this now endorse the idea. They've big debates internally and I think most of them realize it's a wise thing from a development standpoint and an emergency and a humanitarian standpoint to do this. But let me tell you a story that…

MARTIN: Now…

Prof. NATSIOS: …effects our national interest in a very direct way. After we defeated the Taliban the first time, in the fall of 2001, early 2002, we went around the Middle East in AID and we purchased a new variety of drought-resistant wheat seed. We brought it into Afghanistan, we distributed it en masse and they had the biggest wheat harvest in the history of the country. There was also very good rains, that helped. So much so, that the price of wheat collapsed to 20 percent of its normal level and farmers stopped even harvesting the wheat because the price was so low.

It wasn't worth harvesting. And the same year that this happened, we imported 200,000 tons of American wheat, which further depressed the price. And I said wait, why are we doing this? Why don't we go purchase the food that we helped them grow by bringing this new wheat variety in and feed Afghans with Afghan food? It would've propped the price back up again. The next year the farmers said, we can't make any money and we said, we're gonna grow poppy. So, the food aid program unintentionally, the way it's structured now, did not give us the flexibility to support prices in Afghanistan that in fact led to increased poppy production.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Andrew Natsios, he is the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. And we're talking about whether there is a better way to get food to hungry people than shipping it from the U.S. across the ocean to Africa. What's the posture of the Obama administration on this plan?

Prof. NATSIOS: I don't, I have not heard that they have taken a position one way or the other. I know where the president's heart is on this because he is very supportive of Africa. This is very popular in Africa. He is supportive of humanitarian assistance. I would think if the issue were brought to him, he'd make the decision in favor of continuing President Bush's initiative. But I don't know where they are and I think they have so many other issues. I hope they make the right decision because there is now momentum behind this.

MARTIN: And finally I wanted to ask you, according to NATO there have been more than 80 pirate attacks off Somalia this far, this year. And obviously, these are all kind of vessels with all kinds of cargo. But now that Americans are aware of this, are pirates affecting the distribution of food?

Prof. NATSIOS: In 2006, two USAID shipments through the World Food Program were captured and disrupted humanitarian operations. There was a storm in Asia during one of our food shipments and the ship sunk. During Hurricane Katrina most of our food comes down the Mississippi River and is put into warehouses in Texas before it's shipped abroad. We were very close, very close to the destruction of all of our warehousing in Texas, before the shipping. If that had happened, thousands of people would have died.

MARTIN: So, there are myriad reasons to rethink what we do now. Do you think that now that Americans are more aware of the effect of, you know, piracy on disrupting food aid and of the cost of transporting it from here to there that there might be more momentum behind, you know, rethinking the way we do this?

Prof. NATSIOS: Well, the more people that know about this, the better off we're going to be, because it's interesting. No one has ever made a public argument that's credible against this.

The argument they use is privately to congressmen. Well, the only reason we've had the food aid program is because of the domestic interests to support it.

There's no domestic interests behind the emergency assistance accounts for non-food and AID, the refugee program in the State Department, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which I ran 20 years ago. Those accounts have always enjoyed widespread support in the Congress because they're popular among the American people, not because a special interest group is supportive of it in the United States, because there isn't any.

I think the argument is a little bit weak to make the argument that the only reason we have a food program is because agriculture and shipping interests support it. It's because the American people support feeding hungry people, and we are the leading humanitarian donor in emergencies in the world, and we have been for decades. And I think we will continue to be.

MARTIN: Andrew Natsios is the former administrator of USAID. He's now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for stopping in.

Prof. NATSIOS: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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