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Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy... Still

Nikhil Aziz

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 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.  

Sadly, much of that 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 three million-plus small farmers (of a population of 9 million). In a nutshell, USAID's plan for Haiti and many other poor countries is 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 Haiti's vibrant network of civil society organizations as central to rebuilding efforts? 


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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.

Export-driven aid and development policies were a bad idea before the earthquake; 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 1998 report, we note these troubling trends: 

  • Food aid and food import dependency in Haiti has continued to rise despite the fact that the UN 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, by 2004 Haiti was importing 270,000 metric tons - a 17 fold increase. When prices of imported foods spiked in 2007, hungry families rebelled.
  • Rural-to-urban migration had risen annually by nearly 4.5%. Although this trend showed immediate reversal after the earthquake, sprawling cities like Port-au-Prince had expanded rapidly with shoddily constructed and vulnerable slums. These neighborhoods were buried by mud in 2008's hurricanes and 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% of Haitian territory. Between 1990 and 2000, the UNDP 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.

What is a sound rehabilitation plan going forward? Camille Chalmers of Grassroots International's partner the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA) 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 must be holistic and can't be relegated to simply physical infrastructure.

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

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. He also serves on the steering committee of the International Human Rights Funders Group and the Funders Network on Trade and Globalization.

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