Leading humanitarian agency Oxfam believes anti-competition policies and farm subsidies in the US have hobbled Haiti’s agricultural sector by undermining local food production.
International food aid to Haiti following the devastating January earthquake no doubt saved many lives in the impoverished Caribbean island nation.
But a new report by a leading international NGO warns that the delivery of subsidised food – especially from the US – while well-intentioned, is fatally undermining Haiti’s critical agricultural sector and its hopes of economic recovery.
In a report released this week, UK-based humanitarian charity Oxfam said the international community’s food aid effort in quake-shattered Haiti had undercut the agricultural sector, which employs over 66% of the country\’s workforce.
When buying their staple foods, Haitians have a choice between extremely cheap produce imported from the US, which is grown on massively subsidised super-farms, or the more expensive locally-grown varieties.
Local producers cannot compete and consequently the agricultural sector is in terminal decline, the humanitarian organisation says.
“Ask people in Haiti and they will tell you that local rice tastes better and it’s more nutritious,” said Oxfam’s senior researcher Marc Cohen.
“But ask them what they buy and they will tell you it’s the US produce, because it’s so much cheaper. Haiti, which imports 80% of its rice, is the United States’ third-largest export market for rice. But the country has the capacity to be much more self-sufficient,” he said.
Haiti suffered a catastrophic earthquake in January 2010, which killed more than 230,000 people. The country was left with an acute food shortage – and thousands more would have died if the international community had not stepped in with a massive food aid programme.
According to Oxfam, Haiti, with the help of international donors, now has a unique opportunity to break out of its chronic poverty cycle.
But this effort is hamstrung by two apparently contradictory US policies.
First, the US supplies Haiti (and has been for years) with massively subsidised food aid, especially rice, which is substantially cheaper to buy than locally-grown produce.
At the same time, under a rule called the Bumpers Amendment, the US bans any direct assistance to industries that compete with US exports. Because of this, cash set aside by the US to help Haiti’s beleaguered economy cannot be channelled where it is most needed – into developing the country’s industrial and agricultural infrastructure.
Cash for crops
Oxfam’s report, titled “Planting Now: Agricultural Challenges and Opportunities for Haiti’s Reconstruction”, calls on international donors to pledge funds for the Haitian government’s $772 million agriculture plan.
Cohen, who authored the report, believes the only solution for Haiti is investment in the country’s agricultural sector coupled with ending subsidised exports.
“All food aid should be purchased locally,” he said. “Cash is much more effective for rebuilding a country and getting it off aid dependency.
“But in Haiti, investment needs to be made throughout the countryside, to provide better health, schools, employment and to develop the infrastructure, while so much more could be done to develop agricultural processing of crops, which is virtually non-existent.”