Ghosts Threaten to Return to Haiti

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

Twelve years ago, Grassroots International released a 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 official aid actually damaged the very aspects of Haitian society it was allegedly trying to fix. The aid was undermining democracy and creating 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 fed transnational agribusiness corporations but didn’t help Haitians grow food for their families.

Sadly, much of that 12-year-old study could have been written today.

Making Matters Worse

As recently as 2007, a USAID agronomist told Grassroots International that Haiti’s small farm sector simply had no future. This was a callous prognosis for the nation’s three million-plus small farmers (out 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” — namely, its abundant cheap labor — by funneling displaced farmers into low-wage assembly plants in the cities or near the border with the Dominican Republic, a strategy critically examined in the FPIF article Sweatshops Won’t Save Haiti. Among other consequences, this strategy is resulting in 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.

Export-driven aid and development policies were a bad idea before the earthquake; they are a terrible idea now. Development agencies currently face a choice. 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 they take a different tack that puts Haiti’s vibrant network of civil society organizations at the center of rebuilding efforts?

Development Rut

The record of the last dozen years is not a pretty one. Food aid in Haiti rose steadily from 16,000 metric tons of imported rice in 1980 to more than 270,000 metric tons by 2004. This 17-fold increase is one example of the shift from at least partial food self-reliance to almost total food dependency. The main cause of this shift was international development policies that emphasized free trade and export agriculture over food sovereignty.

The impact of misguided USAID and other development policies also produced significant rural-to-urban migration (nearly 4.5 percent annually), as displaced farmers flocked to the cities in search of work in the assembly plant/maquila sector. Despite the promises of the HOPE initiatives, unemployed farmers found far fewer jobs than imagined and at even lower wages than hoped. Worldwide competition for these assembly plants remains fierce, and many 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.

In the period from 2003-2009, Haiti’s foreign debt rose from $1.2 to $1.5 billion. International lenders insisted on balancing budgets even if that meant cutting essential social services. During almost the same period, the United Nations stationed a force of 6,000-9,000 peacekeepers in Haiti known by its acronym, MINUSTAH. These peace-keepers have received mixed reports. Even before the earthquake many Haitians described their situation as a military occupation. The Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH), a Grassroots International partner, has documented numerous human rights abuses by MINUSTAH personnel. A cautionary note about current militarized aid comes from wary Haitians quoted in the media: “We asked for 10,000 doctors and nurses; we got 10,000 soldiers.” Some post-earthquake development plans rely on continued foreign troop presence, raising concerns about ongoing dependency and social unrest.

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. Between 1990 and 2000, the UNDP reports that natural forest cover declined by 50 percent. Misguided development policies and practices can turn natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes into humanitarian catastrophes. An already weakened government that had privatized everything from building roads to teaching children has found itself ill-equipped to emerge from natural shocks. Bad policies have also undermined the ability of Haitians to overcome the spike in food prices in 2008, when many hungry families rebelled. Policies advancing food sovereignty are few, although we note the Herculean work of many Haitian popular and nongovernmental organizations in strengthening the ability of Haitian small farmers to grow food for their families and local markets.

There are other hopeful signs. 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 they provide 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.” Others expanded partnerships with Haitian social movements and utilized local expertise to inform their programs.

Holistic Alternatives

Camille Chalmers of Grassroots International’s partner, the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development (PAPDA), suggests concrete ways to turn around the appalling performance of international aid. Most fundamentally, instead of traditional agency-to-agency aid that turns Haitians into “aid recipients,” earthquake rebuilding needs to be a people-to-people effort that transforms Haitians into protagonists of their recovery.

Chalmers notes that this reconstruction can’t be conceived of as simply rebuilding damaged physical infrastructures. He suggests, for example, working holistically to overcome the 45 percent illiteracy rate through an effective and free public school system that respects the history, culture, and ecosystems of Haiti. A new public health system is essential to bring together modern and traditional medicine and offer quality, affordable primary services to all of the population.

Sustainable development is dead in the water without reversing the environmental crisis and replenishing Haiti’s depleted watersheds. Likewise, Haiti’s damaged soil is begging for models of agroecology and food sovereignty, based on comprehensive agrarian reforms that respect ecosystems, biodiversity, and the needs and culture of small farmers.

The reconstruction of a new capital city has to be based on a different logic. The Port-au-Prince that emerges from the ruins should feature public transportation, biodiverse public parks, urban agriculture, and popular arts. Such a humane and balanced urbanization should respect ordinary workers and vendors as true wealth creators,

And finally, recommends Chalmers, Haiti must once and for all cut its ties of dependency with Washington, the European Union, and others. Development policies based on the “Washington Consensus” ought to be abandoned, including militarized aid such as the MINUSTAH soldiers. True peacekeepers, in the form of people-to-people solidarity brigades, would instead be a great help.

A holistic rehabilitation and development plan of this nature will require much more than money. It would require a reversal of policies that run counter to healthy, sustainable development. The Haitian government should resist outside efforts to pry open the economy to imports and to balance Haiti’s budget by cutting health and education spending. In the agricultural sector, Haiti needs to emphasize environmentally friendly food sovereignty so that Haitian families can eat food they grow in fields that hold soil. A virtuous circle of support can allow both the governmental and non-governmental sectors to grow strong together.

Most importantly, this work must be led by Haitians themselves. To keep the development industry honest and advocate for exactly this kind of long-term, holistic aid grassroots organizations must steer Haiti’s development agenda through the challenging decades ahead. Only then will Haiti fully escape its impoverishing dependency and build a strong democracy.

NIKHIL AZIZ is the executive director of Grassroots International and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.