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Airdropping aid is inefficient--so why is the U.S. doing it anyway?


U.S. military planes have begun airdropping food and supplies into Gaza over the weekend. According to U.S. Central Command, American and Jordanian forces dropped some 38,000 meals with parachutes along Gaza's coastline. Compare that to the need. More than 2 million people live in the Gaza Strip. And according to the U.N., a quarter of them face imminent starvation. Jeremy Konyndyk is president of Refugees International, and he was the director of USAID's Office of Disaster Assistance under President Obama. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


SHAPIRO: You helped coordinate airdrops during previous conflicts. So tell us about when they are most effective, how they can be most useful.

KONYNDYK: Well, the first thing to understand about airdrops is they are probably the most inefficient possible way to deliver aid. So they're used very, very sparingly and only when there is truly no other way to get aid in. So we would use them if a population was completely physically inaccessible, if they had been cut off by an earthquake or a hurricane or if there was fighting or if they were besieged. So, for example, when Iraqi Yazidis were fleeing the genocidal militia, the ISIL militia that had pushed them out of their town, they fled up Sinjar Mountain. And in 2014, when I was at AID, we organized airdrops by the U.S. military onto Sinjar Mountain to sustain them. Outside of those kind of situations, it's very, very rare. I can't think of one where we've used them in a place that was simultaneously being served by overland access.

SHAPIRO: Can you just explain why it is so inefficient, why it is such a sort of last resort?

KONYNDYK: Well, first is cost. It is about - you know, and obviously, every situation is a little different, but ballpark 8 to 10 times as expensive logistically to deliver by air as by overland transport. And the volumes are much smaller. So to put this in perspective, Samantha Power, the administrator of USAID, was in the Middle East last week. And she gave remarks in the West Bank, where she was bemoaning the fact that only about 96 trucks per day, on average, had been getting into Gaza. Well, the three planeloads that the U.S. dropped last week are equivalent to ballpark four to six truckloads. So it really is not a significant additional amount of aid relative to the already hugely inadequate amount that's getting in.

SHAPIRO: That's staggering, that not only is it eight to 10 times more expensive, but it's the equivalent of four to six truckloads. And the number that President Biden himself has described as wholly insufficient is something like 96 trucks per day.

KONYNDYK: Correct.

SHAPIRO: And so what kind of deliberations had to lead up to the decision that even given the inefficiency of it, given the cost of it, given that aid could come in by land, it is still at this point a good idea and necessary to do these airdrops from the sky?

KONYNDYK: Well, I think it is reflective of just a level of frustration within the administration with the ongoing obstruction of more normal aid mechanisms by the Israeli government. So, you know, this came on the heels of the Israeli government attempting to organize their own distribution of aid into northern Gaza after having spent most of the last two months blocking the U.N. and other aid organizations from doing kind of more mainstream deliveries there. You can see in the president's rhetoric, you can see in what the vice president said over the weekend and what Administrator Power said in recent days, you know, there's clearly a rising level of frustration with the ongoing obstruction of aid by the Israeli government.

And I think what is quite striking about that is both under the International Court of Justice order, Israel faces a requirement to do all they can to facilitate humanitarian aid. But also under U.S. law, there are prohibitions against providing assistance, security assistance to a country that is blocking the provision of U.S. humanitarian assistance. And, you know, certainly, the plain language of what the president, vice president and administrator of USAID aid have said in recent days suggests that Israel is doing that.

SHAPIRO: Some people have criticized the U.S. as taking performative steps when the Biden administration is at the same time supporting the Israeli military's war in Gaza. What do you make of that assessment?

KONYNDYK: I think there is a really grim irony in the fact that the U.S. is supplying both the bombs that are dropping on Gaza and now the food parcels that are dropping on Gaza. And I think it's far past time. And most, I think, in the humanitarian community, are now saying it is time to put some real pressure and leverage on Israel over these blockages. And again, that is, you know, in our view required under U.S. law, that we should not be providing bombs to a government that is blocking aid from going into a population.

SHAPIRO: Jeremy Konyndyk is president of Refugees International. Thank you so much for talking with us.

KONYNDYK: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.