Does International Aid Keep Haiti Poor?

Why Is Haiti Growing Mangoes When It Needs Rice?
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 5 2011 6:30 AM

Does International Aid Keep Haiti Poor?

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Click here to see a slideshow on Haiti one year after the earthquake.

Above Port-au-Prince, in the terraced mountains of Kenscoff, 34-year-old Gerard Gilbert is tending his farm, a single acre of land on which he grows lettuce. Gilbert has been farming since he was 12 years old using the techniques his father taught him. Agriculture is his livelihood, as it is for two out of every three Haitians, but these days it barely provides enough to live on. Last year, a Haitian agronomist trained and paid by the United States Agency for International Development visited Gilbert's farm and taught him how to grow bigger heads of lettuce. "I used to plant the seeds very near to each other," Gilbert explained. "It was the traditional way to do it." The agronomist gave the seeds more space and helped Gilbert create an irrigation system to use during the dry season. Since then, when Gilbert takes his baskets of lettuce to the local market, he takes home $5 per basket rather than the old $2.50.

The program Gilbert participated in is called WINNER, and it is USAID's flagship project—a five-year, $100 million initiative intended to revitalize Haiti's agriculture sector. Following a comprehensive review of its policies in Haiti in 2009, the agency has made agriculture one of its four pillars of development, alongside health, security, and energy. For 2011 alone, the agency has requested approximately $85 million from Congress for agriculture development. Talking to Gilbert and some of the 1,500 participating farmers who are seeing a 75 percent increase in their crop yields, WINNER looks like a good use of U.S. taxpayers' money.

But there are many who say USAID's programs will not only fail to create wealth for Haiti's farmers; it will also keep them poor.

"It's not a real solution. It's never been a real solution. What [USAID] is doing is putting a Band-Aid on a cancer patient," said Regine Barjon, the CEO of Biotech Solutions and a member of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce. According to critics, USAID's initiatives, which focus on crops such as mangoes, lettuce, cabbage, and peppers, ignore a problematic reality. Haiti spends 80 percent of its export earnings to import staple foods like rice and sugar that the country—with 700,000 hectares of underutilized land and millions of farmers—could be growing itself. But U.S. agriculture subsidies and aid policies have flooded Haiti with American food for three decades, sinking the local economy and leaving Haiti one of the most food-insecure countries in the world.

Gerard Gilbert (left) and his brother are lettuce farmers in Kenscoff, Haiti. "I want my kids to travel, study, and then come back here to work," said Gilbert. Click image to expand.
Gerard Gilbert (left) and his brother are lettuce farmers in Kenscoff, Haiti. "I want my kids to travel, study, and then come back here to work," said Gilbert

"This is a story where there is 99 percent consensus on why we have gotten to where we are," said Phillip Auerswald, a professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. *"It's unambiguous that when you dump agricultural produce in a country at a price that is well below what farmers can reasonably produce that same output, you're going to destroy economic incentives for that industry to exist."

In the 1970s, Haiti imported just 19 percent of its food. During that decade, the U.S. government, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund began creating development plans designed to spur growth in the country's manufacturing sector and to move large parts of the workforce into urban communities. As part of the strategy, Haitian governments after François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who ruled for 15 years until 1971, lowered the country's tariffs for food imports to as low as 3 percent, while the United States raised barriers to exports from Haiti. As Alex Dupuy, a sociology professor at Wesleyan University, wrote on Anthropologyworks.com recently, the island "went from being self-sufficient in the production of rice, sugar, poultry, and pork to becoming the fourth-largest importer of subsidized US rice in the world and the largest importer of foodstuffs from the US in the Caribbean."

Even if USAID wanted to invest money in helping Haiti to become self-sufficient in rice or sugar production, the agency is prohibited from doing so by a little-known American law called the Bumpers Amendment. The law prevents U.S. government aid from being spent on programs that could benefit crops that might compete with American exports on the global market. As then-Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., said in 1985, the law is designed to "prevent American tax dollars from being used to help foreign countries who are trying to take our export markets." It is the reason farmers like Gilbert would not be eligible for USAID programs if they were growing rice or sugar rather than lettuce or mangoes. "Why are they encouraging Haiti to export mangoes?" Dupuy asked pointedly of USAID. "It is not in and of itself going to change the negative balance of trade in favor of Haiti. It's not going to allow agriculture to become a mainstay for the majority of Haitian farmers."

In recent years, organizations such as Oxfam and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs have called for a repeal of the Bumpers Amendment, and in 2010, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tried to include legislation in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act that would soften the law and make exceptions for the world's most food-insecure countries. The move met with opposition from rice-lobby groups, as well as from Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., members of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The changes were not included in the final bill.

Haiti's USAID country director, Carleene Dei, said that the agency's agriculture programs have had many flaws over the last two decades. "We've made massive mistakes, and thank God we did. Because right now we know what we are doing, we know what works, we really do." Dei outlined the agency's goal of focusing on watershed protection and post-harvest care of produce, in order to bring it to markets, as well as the WINNER project's success in increasing crop yields. "This is not rocket science, by the way," she said.

But Philip Auerswald called the agency's persistent focus on small-scale farms and increased crop yields a waste of money. "There's a long history, all over the world, of investing in projects to build farmers' capabilities, to produce higher-quality output," said Auerswald. "The problem is, if there is no market for that output, all you're doing is creating frustrated farmers with higher output who are just as poor as when they started." In Auerswald's opinion, even as the agency attempts a major improvement of its policies in Haiti, it's missing an opportunity to drive development by facilitating market opportunities for Haiti's farmers. "What if anytime you went into Whole Foods, you saw Haitian organic brown rice?" he asked.

Meanwhile, Regine Barjon is trying to raise capital to invest in Haiti's two largest sugar mills; currently, one is standing empty, and the other is running at half-capacity. If they were both operating, said Barjon, farmers would be able to reclaim 25,000 acres of land for sugar-cane production that is currently underutilized. The mills could not only produce 30 megawatts of electricity by burning sugar-cane husks to create steam (Brazil and India both produce energy this way) but also replace 70 percent of Haiti's sugar imports. "Right there you would be able to create some 50,000 jobs," said Barjon. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out."

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Correction, Jan. 5, 2011: This entry originally misspelled George Mason University professor Philip Auerswald's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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