Two Modest Proposals for U.S. Aid to the Caspian Region
As the COVID-19 virus moves eastward, the Caspian Basin nations are taking actions to mitigate the worst impacts of the threat to their populations. Responses have varied from declaring national emergencies to claiming the virus has not infected anyone in the nation. Regardless, time will tell the true story for all the nations, and the United States ought to stand ready to assist those who are willing to accept American aid.
Timely, responsive, and robust help along multiple vectors will enhance the region’s response and recovery while providing the U.S. government a much-needed opportunity to meaningfully engage the regional partners. There are immediate and actionable options available to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Caspian Region, and this article will examine but two of them.
Option 1: Provide Excess Defense Articles
“Excess defense articles are DoD…owned articles no longer needed and declared excess by the U.S. Armed Forces. This excess equipment may be offered at reduced or no cost to eligible foreign recipients on an ‘as is, where is’ basis in support of U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives.”1 The program’s purposes “…include transfer[ing] excess defense equipment to foreign governments or international organizations; [and, it is] typically used for modernization of partner forces.”2 Further, “Excess defense articles provided to partner nation at a reduced price (based on the condition of the equipment) or as a grant. Partner nations pay for packing, crating, handling, and transportation, as well as refurbishment if applicable.”3 In the whole, nations receive substantial equipment for bargain-basement prices.
In general, excess articles are identified by the military departments and the Geographic Combatant Commands. DSCA’s role is to facilitate coordination and approval of requests.4 Embassies, working through the Defense Attaché’s office, identify and justify the need for the EDA items, which are then requested through the Geographic Combatant Command to DSCA.
Excess defense materiel exists in depots in both the U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command theaters. Relevant materiel can be diverted to the existing EDA program and transportation arranged to the destination countries. In practical terms, the equipment and supplies will provide a physical manifestation of U.S. support to the region.
Option 2: Provide excess agriculture products from U.S. farmers
The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program was signed into law on April 17th and provides $19 billion overall, with $16 billion in direct support to farmers and $3 billion to purchase and distribute fresh produce, dairy goods, and meat to food banks. Also, another $873.3 million of Section 32 funding has been allocated to provide designated food items to food banks.5
The Caspian Basin nations are somewhat less resilient to the potential human losses in rural, agricultural areas. Widespread medical casualties could substantially disrupt food supplies and the agriculture sector which would produce a major international humanitarian challenge, especially in the urban centers. Public health and medical capacities in the nations are insufficient to handle the potential numbers of patients. The United States has the opportunity to get ahead of the impending crash of COVID-19 cases and mitigate the disruption to the food supply.
Meanwhile, American farmers and producers are dumping perishable food due to the short-term collapse of the domestic markets related to school and restaurant closures. Existing statutory authorities permit the government purchase of surplus agricultural products for domestic welfare programs or donation to overseas crisis areas. With Congressional action, this program could be augmented to provide domestic relief to farmers and producers while providing much-needed food aid to crisis areas such as refugee camps, diaspora locations, and remote areas in the Central Asian region. Powdered milk with canned meat and vegetables will carry significant weight if the farming capacity in the region is devastated by the virus.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) enjoyed statutory authorities that could assist both the domestic farmers and support international humanitarian assistance. Section 416(b) of the Agriculture Act of 1949, still in effect, permits donation of surplus commodities to “friendly countries.” The Food for Progress authority, if funded by Congress as it was in 1993 to deliver food aid to Russia, would provide donation of any commodity to needy countries.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has three programs that are potentially useful in this situation. The first is the In-Kind Food Aid program that provides food to stricken regions, but there is a significant lag time in the arrival of the food to the beneficiary — four to six months. Under the Food For Peace program, food assistance can be provided on an emergency basis by both government and private sources. Additionally, the Essential Complimentary Activities Program provides additional assistance that will facilitate the efficient and effective distribution of the food aid.
Finally, the U.S. government, through its overseas agricultural arm, the Foreign Agricultural Service, should work with the World Food Program to coordinate assessments, gain visibility into regional food shortfalls — actual and projected — and coordinate relief provisions with the international donor community. This would potentially reduce redundancy in some areas and shortfalls in others.
In summary, America has a historic opportunity to engage the Caspian Basin nations with meaningful and immediately useful assistance in multiple ways, two of which have been examined here. Effective humanitarian assistance will require interagency cooperation to align the legal authorities with the funding and logistics to deliver the aid to the point of need.