Feeding Dependency, Starving Democracy... Still

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.

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
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
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.
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
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
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
tack that includes Haiti's vibrant network of civil society
as 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
and monetary policies may have actually contributed to this
and how those ought to change.

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
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
    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
    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
    - spurred by the HOPE initiatives - have fallen short of expectations,

    creating far fewer jobs than imagined and at even lower wages than

What is
a sound rehabilitation plan going forward? Camille Chalmers of
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
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

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
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,
aid. At the same time, we'll continue to build the kind of
solidarity that Chalmers suggests - helping grassroots organizations
steer Haiti's development agenda through the challenging decades ahead.

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