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Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy…Still

April 14, 2010 by Administrator in Spring 2010

By Nikhil Aziz
(A shorter version of this article was published by CommonDreams.org on March 16, 2010.)

Some of the advice for how Haiti ought to rebuild after the earthquake sounds hauntingly familiar, echoing the same bad development advice that Haiti has received for decades, even before the nation faced its current devastating situation. To avoid repeating the past failures, we would be wise to review how previous aid models led down the wrong path.

Twelve years ago, Grassroots International released a research study entitled “Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy: USAID Policies in Haiti.” Offering an in-depth examination of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) development policies in Haiti, the study concluded that, as the title suggests, official aid actually damaged the very aspects of Haitian society it was allegedly trying to fix—namely it created a lack of democracy and too much dependency.

The study was particularly critical of the development community for making Haiti into a net food importer when it had been nearly self-sufficient, and in fact a major rice producer. Despite, or because of, years of aid programs and structural adjustment policies imposed by international financial institutions and donor countries, the study found that Haiti’s food dependency was actually increasing. This disturbing result was partially caused by subsidized food aid programs that benefited transnational agribusiness corporations but didn’t help Haitians grow food for their families. Sadly, much of the 12-year-old study could have been written today.

As recently as 2007, a USAID agronomist told Grassroots International that there simply was no future for Haiti’s small farm sector, a callous prognosis for the nation’s 3 million-plus small farmers (of a population of 9 million). In a nutshell, USAID’s plan for Haiti and many other poor countries has been to push farmers out of subsistence agriculture as quickly as possible. Farmers that might otherwise be supported to grow food are frequently engaged as laborers in work-for-food programs. Rather than pursue innovative programs to keep rural food markets local and support food sovereignty, misguided aid programs encourage farmers to grow higher value export crops such as cashews, coffee and, more recently, jatropha for agrofuels.

USAID policies seek to make optimum use of Haiti’s “comparative advantage”—i.e., its abundant cheap labor—by funneling displaced farmers into low-wage assembly plants in the cities or near the Dominican border. The result is staggering levels of rural-to-urban migration, leading to dangerous overcrowding of Port-au-Prince. Passed by the U.S. Congress in 2006, programs such as the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act (HOPE) have lured transnational companies to Haiti with offers of no-tariff exports on textiles assembled in Haitian factories to capitalize on this pool of laborers.

In the name of rebuilding Haiti, will USAID and other large donor and aid agencies pursue this same formula over the coming years? Or will it take a different tack that includes making Haiti’s vibrant network of civil society organizations central to rebuilding efforts?

While there is widespread hand-wringing in the media that rebuilding efforts are hampered by the desperate poverty and lack of infrastructure, there is very little introspection about whether aid strategies and development and monetary policies may have actually contributed to this impoverishment and how those ought to change. Such critiques are usually relegated to alternative media sources like The Nation and Democracy Now, or groups that have long-standing relations with grassroots Haitian movements.

Export-driven aid and development policies were a bad idea before the earthquake, and they are a terrible idea now. A wage freeze advocated by the International Monetary Fund shortly after the earthquake is simply inhumane and out of touch with reality.

Since our 1997 Grassroots International report, we note the following troubling trends.

  • Food aid and food import dependency in Haiti has continued to rise despite the fact that the U.N. World Food Programme has been operating in Haiti since 1969. In 1980, Haiti imported 16,000 metric tons of rice. After two successive phases of trade liberalization, Haiti was, by 2004, importing 270,000 metric tons, a 17-fold increase. When prices of imported foods spiked in 2007, hungry families rebelled. Policies advancing food sovereignty are few, although we note the Herculean work of many Haitian popular and non-governmental organizations in strengthening the ability of Haitian small farmers to grow food for their families and local markets.
  • Rural-to-urban migration has risen annually by nearly 4.5 percent. Although this trend showed immediate reversal after the earthquake, sprawling cities like Port-au-Prince had expanded rapidly, resulting in shoddily constructed and vulnerable slums. These neighborhoods, buried by mud in the hurricanes of 2008, are now crushed under rubble.
  • Haiti’s ecology continues to deteriorate, demonstrated by the tremendous loss of life and soil in recent hurricanes. Forests barely cover 2 percent of Haitian territory, and between 1990 and 2000 the United Nations Development Programme reports that natural forest cover declined by 50 percent.
  • Promises of a robust assembly plant/maquila sector that could absorb unemployed farmers, spurred by the HOPE initiatives, have fallen short of expectations, creating far fewer jobs than imagined and at even lower wages than hoped. Worldwide competition for these assembly plants remains fierce; investors have found more attractive places than Haiti to set up shop. Casting further gloom on this sector is the current slowdown in the global economy. Fewer assembly plants may be necessary and the destruction of Haiti’s infrastructure makes it unlikely that plants would relocate there.
  • The experience of living with foreign troops has been difficult for Haiti. The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), a peacekeeping force, has received mixed reports at best. Over the last six years it has stationed between 6,000 and 9,000 troops in Haiti at enormous public expense. Many Haitians describe their situation as a military occupation, harkening back to frequent occupations in Haiti’s history. The Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH), a Grassroots International partner, has documented numerous human rights abuses by MINUSTAH personnel. Development plans of some donor countries will rely on foreign troops for implementation, which may lead to more dependency and social unrest. A cautionary note about militarized aid comes from wary Haitians quoted in the media: “We asked for 10,000 doctors and nurses; we got 10,000 soldiers.”
  • Haiti’s foreign debt continued to rise from $1.2 to $1.5 billion in the period from 2003-2009. International lenders insisted on balancing budgets even if that meant cutting essential social services. Thankfully, there is now some movement towards debt cancellation.

What is a sound rehabilitation plan going forward? Camille Chalmers of the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA), another Grassroots International partner, has made some suggestions in these early days after the quake. Instead of traditional agency-to-agency aid that turns Haitians into “aid recipients” rather than protagonists of their recovery, this needs to be a people-to-people effort, what Chalmers describes as “structural solidarity.”

Chalmers notes that this reconstruction can’t be relegated to simply physical infrastructure. He asks that we work holistically to:

  1. Overcome illiteracy, which afflicts 45 percent of the population;
  2. Build an effective public school system that is both free and respects the history, culture and ecosystems of Haiti;
  3. Reverse the environmental crisis and rebuild Haiti’s thirty watersheds with the massive participation of young people and international volunteers;
  4. Fight child mortality, malnutrition and maternal mortality (currently 630 women per 100,000 live births) by constructing a new public health system that brings together modern and traditional medicine and offers quality, affordable primary services to the entire population;
  5. Reconstruct a new capital city based on a different logic: humane and balanced urbanization that respects workers as the true wealth creators and privileges public transportation, parks that maximize biodiversity, urban agriculture and popular arts;
  6. Move toward food sovereignty based on comprehensive agrarian reform, prioritizing agricultural investments that respect ecosystems, biodiversity and the needs and culture of small farmers;
  7. Cut dependency ties with Washington, the European Union and others, and abandon policies issued by different versions of the “Washington Consensus”; and
  8. End MINUSTAH and instead build people-to-people solidarity brigades.

What would a holistic rehabilitation and development plan of this nature require? Much more than money! It would require a reversal of policies that are at their core counter to healthy, sustainable development. It would mean a stop to attempts to pry Haiti’s economy open to imports and to balance Haiti’s budget by cutting health and education spending. It would mean a start to implementing policies for environmentally-friendly food sovereignty so that Haitians can eat the food they grow in fields that hold the soil and to a massive virtuous circle of support for both the governmental and non-governmental sectors so that they can grow strong together.

While many aspects of Haiti’s reality have stayed the same since Grassroots International published “Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy” in 1998, others have changed for the better. Some aid agencies, such as CARE, took to heart many of the findings in the study and altered the way it provided aid. For example, in 2007 CARE gave up $45 million in annual federal funding because, as it said, “American food aid is not only plagued with inefficiencies, but also may hurt some of the very poor people it aims to help.” Other agencies expanded partnerships with Haitian social movements and utilized local expertise to inform their programs.

An essential part of Grassroots International’s work with the Haitian people over the coming years will be to try to keep the development industry honest and advocate for exactly this kind of long-term, holistic aid. At the same time, we’ll continue to build the kind of people-to-people solidarity that Chalmers suggests, helping grassroots organizations steer Haiti’s development agenda through the challenging decades ahead.

Nikhil Aziz is the executive director of Grassroots International (www.grassrootsonline.org). He also serves on the steering committee of the International Human Rights Funders Group and the Funders Network on Trade and Globalization. “Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy: USAID Policies in Haiti” is available at http://www.grassrootsonline.org.

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