Lift the Jones Act and similar restrictions for humanitarian crises
© Getty Images

The scenes of suffering in Puerto Rico are devastating, as many of its 3.4 million residents struggle to secure basic necessities for survival in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma. While it will take years to recover from the damage wrought by these monster storms, right now there is an urgent need for assistance – food, water, medicine, electricity and shelter – in order to avert a humanitarian crisis among our fellow Americans.

Tragically, one of the reasons why aid delivery has been slow in arriving is due to a century old law governing U.S. shipping called the Merchant Marine Act, or “Jones Act.” That law says goods shipped between U.S. ports must be carried on ships that are built in the U.S., American-owned and crewed by U.S. citizens. Thursday the Department of Homeland Security waived this law, removing a major obstacle to getting critical assistance to Puerto Rico faster. However, the waiver is temporary and too short -- in effect for just 10 days, when many ships will take five days or more simply to reach the island.


The impact of cargo preferences like these go far beyond Puerto Rico and the ravage of this year’s hurricanes. People all across the world suffering from famine, violence, droughts, floods and various other disasters are affected as well. Under current law, at least 50 percent of all food aid provided by the U.S. government must be shipped on U.S. flag ships. When this quota was adopted decades ago, there were arguably good reasons for such a rule. But in practice, its impact can be devastating and risks lives.

Today, this rigid, inflexible requirement takes a toll on the cost and effectiveness of food aid, which is why bipartisan leaders in Congress, like Sens. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing GOP senators frustrated with Romney jabs at Trump MORE (R-Tenn.) and Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenators introduce bipartisan bill restricting police use of facial recognition tech Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Bill Gates visits Capitol to discuss climate change with new Senate caucus MORE (D-Del.), have been working to reform or repeal it. With reforms, we know food assistance could reach more hungry people and save more lives without costing a penny more to American taxpayers.

With more than 20 million people currently on the brink of famine in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen, we need to effectively use our resources to help feed as many people as possible.

Over the past half century, U.S. shipments of corn, wheat, soy and other commodities have fed more than 3 billion people in over 150 countries during times of crisis. These shipments have literally saved millions of lives, and they embody the best of Americans’ compassion and generosity. But millions more people could be saved if we modernized the shipping rules governing commodity transport.

With humanitarian aid budgets struggling to stay afloat amidst record demand and impending budget cuts, it’s imperative – morally imperative – that we reform woefully wasteful and inefficient regulations. Rather than a one-size-fits-all straightjacket, the U.S. food aid system must have the flexibility to use a variety of different approaches. That includes buying and delivering food closer to those in need, providing vouchers that families can use in local markets to buy the food that is available and best fits their needs or shipping food on U.S. flag vessels.

By making these reforms, the U.S. could feed up to 10 million more people per year at no extra cost to taxpayers. Think about that – we could feed the equivalent of the entire population of Georgia, Michigan or North Carolina for the same amount of money we now spend on emergency food aid.

Chronic hunger and famine take a devastating toll and destabilize countries and regions. In South Sudan, 7.7 million people — more than half the country’s population — urgently need food assistance. As one CARE colleague put it: “Women walk hours a day hunting for wild fruits and vegetables, because there’s so little to eat from their gardens or in the local markets. Whatever is available in the market is unaffordable to most, as the value of the currency falls and the price of food soars. When I visit one market, I find nothing of nutritional value, only tea leaves, sugar and salt. Many people survive by eating roots and water lilies.”

We are already doing much to help desperately hungry people, like these women, but we could do even more by simply updating a century old law. Everyone – from American citizens struggling in Puerto Rico to refugees fleeing hunger and violence in South Sudan – deserves to have the food, water and aid that are necessary for survival. We have a chance, and I would say an obligation, to deliver this aid faster, while saving taxpayer dollars in the process. It’s time to lift the Jones Act, and similar restrictions, for all humanitarian crises. Doing so will save lives and create a more stable world.

David Ray is the vice president of policy and advocacy for the global humanitarian organization CARE.