FLASHBACK | The American Plan: How to Destroy an Agricultural Economy in Haiti
Back to the Future: Food Aid in Haiti
June 3, 2011
I’ve recently been eliminated as a candidate for consultant work in the US Food for Peace Office in Haiti .
The reason has nothing to do with the death count report on which I was lead researcher and that has garnered a lot of media attention. That has gotten me no criticism from the US Government.
I’ve been disqualified, it is rumored, because of my critique of food aid.
I don’t think that it is a critique at all. I think that it is compendium of events that were arguably catastrophic for the Haitian agricultural sector upon which some 60% of the population directly depends. And I wrote it as a scholar and as an American citizen concerned about our policies in Haiti.
But the interesting and disturbing thing about it is that I came back to Haiti two years ago and began once again working as a consultant in the field of food aid precisely because the new US government had announced that it was changing US food policy in Haiti. And the politics had indeed changed. Two years ago Bill Clinton publically apoligized for having participated in undermining the Haitian rice industry during his tenure as president.
Apparently that’s changed again.
So I’m posting this chapter from a book I wrote, Travesty in Haiti. I am doing it as what I think is an obligation to the Haitian farmer, and a reminder to anyone who reads this that the way we’ve operated in Haiti with respect to what should be humanitarian undertaking–feeding the hungry–has been immensely destructive.
It’s hoped that history is not about to repeat itself.
The American Plan:
How to Destroy an Agricultural Economy
As it turns out, CARE had become involved in what was a very deliberate undermining of the Haitian peasant economy, the cornerstone of a plan that the World Bank and USAID had designed. This is how it happened.
Back in the 1970s, Haiti, like many countries in Central America and the Caribbean, was largely rural, its inhabitants small-scale farmers, and it had poor road, communication, educational, and health systems. It was underdeveloped.
Haiti’s underdevelopment was arguably a more pressing problem than in other small countries in the region because at 168 people per square kilometer in 1970, it had a population density twice that of neighboring Cuba (76 people per square kilometer) and almost twice that of the neighboring Dominican Republic (91 people per square kilometer—see CIAT 2005). Over 95 percent of Haiti was reportedly deforested, causing erosion so severe that reputable scholars were already referring to it as the worst in the world (Lundahl 1982:7a). Erosion affected more than Haiti: the runoff that billowed from Haitian rivers into huge underwater clouds contributed to the destruction of ecologically sensitive corral reefs throughout the Caribbean. Something had to be done. The United States was the country that for almost one hundred years had taken upon itself the responsibility of policing and developing the area. It had already invaded Haiti twice before, Cuba four times, the Dominican Republic three, Honduras seven, Nicaragua seven, Panama four, Guatemala and El Salvador once each (Grossman 2001). Moreover, there were new opportunities on the horizon. The promotion of overseas sales of U.S. corn, wheat, cotton, and rice was high on the U.S. congressional agenda. From 1986 to 2000, government subsidies for these products was 38 percent per year (Reidl 2004; Roberts and Jotzo 2002; Roberts and Jotzo 2002). There was also the EU, including France and Germany, which were also aggressive promoters of their own farm products. The EU subsidized the same grain products mentioned above at an even greater rate than the United States, 48 percent (Ibid). There was also the offshore industrial sector, particularly the one hundred billion dollar garment industry, something the U.S. government had begun to “cultivate” in Haiti as far back as 1971 when in exchange for supporting the continuation of the Duvalier dictatorship from father to son, the Haitian government agreed to create an environment hospitable to U.S. investors in the assembly sector. Custom taxes were eliminated, a low minimum wage guaranteed, labor unions suppressed, and U.S. companies given the right to repatriate profits. By 1980, there were some two hundred mostly U.S.-owned assembly plants in the country (McGowan 1997).
It is at this juncture that the U.S. government, working through USAID and the planners at the World’s Major international lending institutions—the World Bank, The Inter American Development Bank (IDB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), all U.S. and secondarily E.U. controlled—were led by USAID in adopting policies that, with perhaps the best of intentions, would destroy the Haitian economy of small farmers.
Calling it “economic development,” the growth prospects of the assembly industry meant that migrants to urban areas were economically useful as factory workers, something that justified eliminating farming as an alternative livelihood strategy. The objective conveniently articulated with those of U.S. agricultural interests and the conservationist goal of moving peasants away from destructive hillside cultivation of bean and corn crops that caused so much of the erosion mentioned earlier. The logic seemed overwhelming.
So a plan was hatched.
At that time they called it the “American Plan.” For the rural areas, the policy planners envisioned neat rows of high tech agriculture, coffee, mango, and avocado plantations, and modern factory-style poultry barns. For the urban areas they envisioned burgeoning industrial parks to which the peasants could migrate and be transformed into factory workers. The new Haiti would undergo, “an historic change toward deeper market interdependence with the United States” (AID 1982, quoted in DeWind and Kinley 1988:61), a relationship that would release the “latent Haitian agro-industrial potential waiting to explode” (USAID 1982; Quoted in DeWind and Kinley 1988) and, as USAID Administrator Peter McPherson testified before the U. S. Congress, would ultimately “make the prospects for Haiti as the ‘Taiwan of the Caribbean’ real indeed” (quoted in DeWind and Kinley 1988:61).
The plan might not have been such a bad idea. Haiti clearly needed help. But it didn’t happen like they said it would.
A good example of the impact of the policies that came about was the Haitian rice industry. Until the 1980s, Haiti was almost entirely self-sufficient in rice consumption, something made possible, in part, by protecting Haitian farmers from the heavily subsidized rice produced in the U.S. and Europe. Twenty percent of the Haitian population was directly involved in the industry. But in the political chaos of 1986—the year that the last Duvalier regime was ousted from power—USAID used the promise of continued political and financial support to negotiate a lowering of tariffs on rice from 35 to 3 percent. U.S. rice—subsidized at a rate that varied during the 1980s and 1990s from 35 percent to 100 percent—flooded into the country. By 1996, 2,100 metric tons of U.S. rice arrived in Haiti every week, an annual loss to impoverished Haitian cultivators of about 23 million dollars per year (Webster 2006; U.S. Department of Commerce 2006; Georges 2004). Haitians were not even left the luxury of controlling the importation process. About half of the imported rice came in under a monopoly held by RCH (The Rice Corporation of Haiti), a U.S. corporate subsidiary with lobbyists in Washington D.C. (WHO 1995; Tayler 2006; Georges 2004).
To justify their actions, USAID funded reports that Haitian farmers could not feed the nation. The reports came from experts like Haitian-born, Harvard graduate, Tulane professor, private consultant Augustin Antoine Agustin MD, PhD, MPH (1993, 1997) who also happened to be one of the largest owners of private clinics in Haiti, owner of a major NGO that depended on charitable donations, and owner of Xaragua Resort, a for-profit enterprise that CARE contracted for lavish banquet dinners and seminars. Agustin and other consultants for USAID and the organizations that were paid to distribute food made detailed calculations of massive food production deficits predicting increasing malnutrition and famine if something was not done (see also USAID 1977; UPAN 1982). In a more recent report Agustin (1999) cited thirty-two sources going back to the 1950s, sources that justified the argument that Haitian farmers could no longer feed themselves, much less the Haitian urban population.
But where the production figures come from is a mystery. As seen in Jean Makout, no one was monitoring food production. No one, that is, except for one group of consultants I forgot to mention. In 1993 CARE hired a group of researchers from Auburn University. The researchers reported that farmers in the region were producing 800 kilograms of corn per hectare, translating to a calorific quantity considerably in excess of nutritional needs of the average family in the area. The report was ignored (SCID 1993).
The irony of what I am describing was captured at the national level in a report written by Food for the Hungry International. Funded by USAID, consultants working for Food for the Hungry International (FHI) went into Haiti to “improve” the food security program. Just like Antoine and others who had a vested interest in showing the need for more food aid, FHI consultants began their report with an impressive summation of statistics and indicators showing that Haiti was indeed suffering a frightening food production deficit. But, tongue in cheek, the authors then wrote,
In our visit to Haiti, we were also hoping to gather regional level data on agricultural production. Unfortunately, we were told that no such data exists. In a visit to the Ministry of Agriculture, we found out that agricultural data collection leaves a lot to be desired and as a result, there is a paucity of regional information. To remedy that, in 1994, USAID and the Title II Cooperating Sponsors established the Interim Food Security Information System (IFSIS) to “collect, analyze and monitor food security indicators.” It is hoped that this initiative will begin to address this critical area of agricultural data collection. (FHI 1999:5. All punctuation in original report)
So, twenty years after the supposed rush to save Haiti from underproduction and five years after USAID launched a Food Security Information System to measure production, the reality was that no one knew what production was.
Moreover, the tip off that the prevailing U.S. political interests had little if any sympathy for impoverished Haitians was that it was decided that Haiti’s farmers needed, not to produce more food or adopt better techniques, but rather, as seen, to import food from the United States and Western Europe. To help get the process started they began selling grains and beans at below market prices and, indeed, giving them away.
Food assistance to Haiti during the 1980s tripled reaching a yearly average of over $50 million in gratuitous U.S. surplus beans, corn, rice, and cracked wheat. Put in simpler terms, that was enough food to meet the calorific needs of over 15 percent of the Haitian population. As seen in Jean Makout, this food was not only given away free as a type of welfare, but granting the politicians foreign aid in the form of grain brought the Haitian government into the act. There was one stipulation, however: they could have the food; and they could sell the food for money; but they had to sell it on the Haitian domestic market.
Multinational charitable corporations working in the country also received grants in the form of food. In the 1990s, for example, $5 million of CARE Haiti’s $15 million annual budget came from USAID in the form of grain and beans that it was obligated to monetize on the Haitian market. And the United States was not the only supplier of food destined to be monetized. The German and French governments, also interested in the assembly sector, joined the fray and gave food to “NGOs” from their respective countries with the stipulation that the food be monetized in Haiti. The tiny agricultural country was so thoroughly inundated with surplus food from the United States and Western Europe that Port-au-Prince merchants were soon re-exporting cracked wheat to Miami retailers (DeWind and Kinley 1988:69–70).
The consequence throughout Haiti was the same as in Jean Makout: the near total destruction of the agricultural economy. Ships left Haitian ports empty and returned with their holds packed with hundreds of thousands of tons of United States, German, and French surplus and subsidized wheat, rice, corn, and beans. Meanwhile, throughout Haiti one could find avocadoes, oranges and even mangoes rotting on the ground or being fed to pigs. Or rather, they were being fed to pigs until 1981. Up until then, foreign agronomists considered the small and hearty Haitian pig a mainstay of the peasant’s survival strategy. But as seen in Jean Makout, during the early 1980s the U.S. veterinarians led Haitian soldiers on a wholesale search and destroy mission after the endemic Haitian pig, the USAID-led multimillion dollar solution to an African swine fever epidemic on the island. Many observers say the peasants never recuperated from the eradication program.
But whatever the case, there were plenty of other problems down on the Haitian farm.
While the rice industry was crumbling, the U.S. government also removed Haiti’s sugar quota. By 1988, sugar exports had dropped to zero and by 1995, Haiti, once counted among the greatest sugar producers in the world, was importing twenty-five thousand tons of U.S. sugar per year (Hallward 2004). Increasingly stringent and protectionist U.S. sanitary and phytosanitary regulations—restrictions on pests and bacteria— meant that most other agricultural exports from Haiti were also eliminated. Condemning the produce as inferior quality or contaminated, USDA inspectors forbade or severely limited the importation of Haitian cacao, sisal, essential oils, and cotton exports, all of which subsequently shrank or disappeared entirely as Haitian export crops. Coffee, which still comprised 70 to 80 percent of Haiti’s agricultural exports in 1990, fell from eighteen thousand metric tons in 1987 to six thousand tons in 1995 (Alphonse 1996). By the 1990s, domestic agriculture sector was shattered. Accounting for 52 percent of Haitian exports in 1980, agriculture comprised 24 percent in 1987; 21 percent in 1990; and by the mid 1990s the only produce coming out of Haiti were a few mangos and a trickle of coffee, something for which USAID, in a bid to shore up its image, was claiming as a consequence of its own efforts (Lenaghan 2005; USAID 2006). But for the vast majority of the 70 percent of the Haitian population that farmed, already among the poorest people in the Western hemisphere, life got much harder.
The Haitian government, while perhaps never of much assistance in helping its farmers, was now brought into full cooperation in destroying their livelihoods and trying to push them into becoming urban factory workers. In 1989 only 5 percent of the national budget went to the Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Rural Development (Wikipedia, 2006). In hopes that small farmers would abandon the rural areas for urban factory jobs, the seven hundred thousand small plantations were left to wither. Meanwhile, customs taxes on industrial products had been eliminated, a low minimum wage guaranteed, labor unions suppressed, U.S. companies given the right to repatriate profits, and, guided by USAID, whose consultants were helping Haitian politicians draw up the budget, the Government invested instead in the construction of two of Port-au-Prince’s four major industrial parks (McGowan 1997; Library of Congress and CIA World Fact Book 2006).
There was something else going on as well. The economic destruction and deliberate drive to keep the Haitian masses poor by focusing on holding wages low and avoiding investments in alternative domestic production or services was having another effect: it was driving the educated and entrepreneurial classes out of the country. The Haitian “boat people” were one conspicuous aspect of this migration. But they were only a small one.
Between 1970 and 1991, a total of one hundred thousand boat people reached the U.S. mainland (Rocheleau 1984; Saint-Louis 1988; New York Times 1991); but in the same period, more than one million elite and middle class Haitians boarded commercial flights and emigrated to the United States, France, and Canada (Haiti had a population of about six million during the 1980s). Some 90 percent of these migrants came to the United States. Entry was achieved legally, by applying for immigrant status, and illegally, by skipping out on nonimmigrant visas. Twenty percent of the country’s seven million inhabitants had left; as much as 90 percent of the elite had gone (Schwartz 1992).
Even “boat people,” often referred to in U.S. newspapers as “economic refugees fleeing poverty,” represented the upper echelons of the peasantry. Rocheleau (1984) found that the average boat person had at least 5.6 years of education—enough to teach primary school in rural Haiti, and seven times the .75 years of schooling attained by the average Haitian peasant they had left behind. In a South Florida study of lower-income Haitian migrants enrolled in English courses, Alex Stepick (1984:347) found that 67 percent were semi skilled; 31 percent had between one and six years of education; 45 percent had some secondary school; and 26 percent had attended commercial, short courses, or vocational training. In a country where only 23 percent of the population is literate and few are technically skilled, these represent tremendous losses in human capital (World Almanac 1990).
To anyone looking back over the decades, it was already clear at that point in time, 1990, that things were going terribly awry. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, before the American Plan went into full effect, Haiti was neither significantly better nor worse off than most countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. As we’ve seen, population density was a high 168 persons per square kilometer in 1970 and that was a problem. There was widespread deforestation, massive erosion, and high rates of illiteracy. But the argument could also be made that it did not have to be as great a problem as it was. The population density in Haiti was lower than in Puerto Rico at 302, Trinidad and Tobago at 187, El Salvador at 176, and Jamaica at 169. Per capita GDP was actually higher than most Central American countries (Chart 1); child morality was high, but it was comparable to that of Bolivia, Honduras, and Peru, countries that today have child mortality rates less than half that of Haiti (Chart 2). Moreover, from 1967 to 1980, Haiti’s real GDP grew at a respectable average of 2.5 percent per year. But then, in 1980, while income for other countries in the region increased, Haiti’s stagnated. From 1985 to the present it moved backward, declining at a rate of 2 percent per year (IMF 2005). Plummeting health and infrastructural conditions echoed economic ruin. And yet, despite the “American Plan” and all the other “development” efforts, birth rates and population growth did not, as in other countries of the region, decline. Not even the massive emigration seen earlier significantly offset population growth. At 295 people per square kilometer in 1999, Haiti had almost twice the 1970 population density (United Nations 2005). No relief was in sight. Despite the highest per capita expenditures on contraceptives in the western hemisphere, the birth rate in rural areas, where 65 to 70 percent of the population still lived, was six births per mother, the highest in the Western hemisphere. Contraceptive use rate was the lowest, 21 percent (UNICEF 2006). The result was a population growth rate of 2.2 percent. The population of Haiti could be expected to double in the next thirty years.
Dismal as it may seem, proponents of the American Plan could still say that the plan might be working. Wealthy Haitian entrepreneurs and foreign investors could still make an argument that the economy was in a state of transformation, that the poor would enjoy long-run benefits, indeed be saved from themselves by reducing erosion and rural population pressure. The poor were, after all, moving into the cities. Rural population was declining at a rate of 2 percent per year while the urban population was growing at 4.1 percent (CELADE 1999). And there were jobs. With names like Disney, Levi’s, and Nike, Haiti had one of the largest assembly sectors in the developing world. Estimates of the number of workers at the time run as high as eighty thousand to one hundred thousand people. Wages averaged less than $2 per day; no viable pension plans, nor healthcare, nor disability, nor unemployment insurance. And it was precisely during this period that the Haitian economy began to move backward, per capita GDP declining 2.5 percent per year between 1980 to 1985; and it fell in half in the years 1986 to 1991, going from $419 to $225 (UN Globalis 2006). But yes, it could still be said in 1990 that the plan to transform the economy to a vigorous industrial power might be working, might.Then things really started to go wrong.In applying their economic designs and sanctioning free elections to democratize Haiti and make it amenable to overseas capital investors, USAID, E.U., World Bank, IMF, and IDB planners seemed to have forgotten the very reason they had come to Haiti to promote industry in the first place: Most Haitians were desperately poor. When fair elections, another part of the development initiative, finally took place, the Haitian masses overwhelmingly voted for former priest and leftist Liberation Theologist Jean Bertrand Aristide.Condemning capitalism as a “mortal sin,” Aristide raised the minimum wage and implemented reforms that militated against privatization and the proletarization of the Haitian poor. USAID reportedly spent $26 million defeating his wage hikes; but not enough to constitutionally stop the priest and his reform movement. Seven months after being elected, a group of CIA-trained and -financed military leaders packed Aristide aboard a plane and sent him into exile—for the first time (Chomsky 2004; DeRienzo 2004; Dupuy 1999; Driver 1996; Jenson 1994: 79–81).
The Bush administration looked rather guilty. Its leaders were, of course, ardently in favor of democracy and, publicly at least, the coup appalled them. But Aristide and his reforms were apparently not what they had in mind when they said “democracy.” Following a meeting between Bush and Aristide, the U.S. president’s spokesman told the press, “The U.S. supports democracy in Haiti…But we don’t know if President Aristide will return to power” (Heinl and Heinl 1996:700–29)
The U.S. ambassador and other diplomats were soon highlighting the atrocities of the Aristide government, atrocities that were in fact not the works of Aristide, but of mobs that supported him and that, even then, paled in comparison to the numbers of people previous administrations had killed and amounted to only a miniscule fraction of the slaughter, rape, and torture the new military junta was carrying out at that very moment (Chomsky 2004).
But whatever they had hoped for, the Bush administration now had a mess on its hands. In New York City a crowd of one hundred thousand Haitian emigrants marched through the streets in protest. In the two months after the coup, seven thousand Haitian refugees were intercepted at sea and soon a tent city of refugees swelled the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to its 12,500 capacity. Journalists covering Haiti were sending pictures and video footage of the hundreds of boats being built on Haitian shores in preparation for more voyages to Guantanamo and Miami. The Coast Guard braced for an onslaught of refugees and U.S. immigration courts were overflowing with indignant lawyers. The Organization of American States and the United Nations vehemently condemned the coup and the Bush administration, said to be providing secret financing to coup members, was under heavy fire.
Plunged into renewed political instability, the years 1991–1994 were marked by repressive military rule within Haiti and a U.S.-led international embargo from without. Assembly plants in Port-au-Prince closed. In 1994 there were only four thousand assembly plant workers, down from a high of one hundred thousand three years before; four hundred thousand of the urban poor left the city and returned to the countryside where they had not yet severed ties, back to dependence on semisubsistence rural household livelihood strategies characterized by destructive hillside farming, intense labor demands, and high premium on child labor, practices that meant continued high fertility (Naval 1995; CPT 1998).
Meanwhile something else was happening. The embargo meant no petroleum, no imported goods, and no raw materials for industry; previous importers became smugglers of CDs, cars, fuel and, with them, narcotics. The new junta of former CIA trainees was also, according to authoritative reports, deriving great profits from the cocaine trade (DeRienzo 2004; Jenson 1994:179; see also chapter notes). But we will get back to that. For now the point is that the plan to turn Haiti into “the Taiwan of the Caribbean” had failed.
The food aid, however, did not stop coming. Haiti was, after all, poor and by this point, even if Haiti had been able to support itself ten years before, the USAID-led plan had, despite the massive return migration to rural areas, helped give way to crowded urban slums increasing the number of nonfood producers and thereby destroying that capacity. So, spurred on by humanitarian compassion, hopeful investment capitalists, and the agricultural lobbies that favored subsidies and government agricultural purchases, the plan still did not change. Still the food kept coming (see Appendix C for statistics).
In a 1994 agreement with the Aristide administration—then in exile and negotiating with the EU and UN to be returned to Haiti—the American Plan became the Paris Plan, a reaffirmation of the original version (Haiti Progres 1995). When the international community reinstalled Aristide in office on October 12, 1994, the World Bank, IDB, IMF, USAID, and the EU allies still did not change the plan. Still the food continued to come, and still, after the end of the embargo and the return of direct international aid, life for the impoverished Haitian masses continued to worsen. There was only a fledgling resurgence of the industrial sector—to twenty thousand workers—the agricultural export economy all but completely ceased to exist, and at least 70 percent of the population was still hunkered down on small farms trying to eke out a living.
Still the plan did not change, still the food kept coming, and still life got worse.
From the year 1990 to 1999, the year that I was doing the food report for CARE, per capita GDP declined at a rate of 2.5 percent per year. This was not a simple function of the embargo, as many proponents of aid tried to dismiss it. Even after the embargo ended in 1994 and the U.S. and E.U. released massive amounts of aid, life for the Haitian masses got worse. Not only did per capita GDP continue to decline, but as in Jean Makout, severe malnutrition actually increased; on a national level it went from 3.9 percent in 1994—at the end of the embargo—to 4.1 percent in 1996—two years after the massive aid began anew (USAID 1999).
Still the food kept coming.
In the five years from 1994 to 1998, the United States, France, and Germany provided a total of 618,000 metric tons of food aid to the country, an annual average of 123,600 metric tons, enough to meet the daily nutritional needs (2,200 daily calories) of all seven million men, women, children, and infants in Haiti for twenty-seven days per year. And so still there was no market for the majority of the Haitians dependent on small farming for their livelihoods.
Most of the people in rural Haiti responded in two ways: Those who could afford it continued to emigrate overseas, most to the United States. Many of those who remained, withdrew into the local economies where an array of foods, many of which had been used since the pre-Columbian era, contributed to an amazingly adaptive survival strategy in the face of drought (see Appendix G for a description).
Still USAID, and now its fully cooperating E.U. partner, did nothing to change its plans for Haiti. The USAID, IMF, World Bank, and IDB planners responsible for providing the $2 billion 1994–1999 Haitian budgets only permitted 5.6 percent to be slated for domestic agricultural. No longer in touch with the original American Plan and its new version, the Paris Plan, USAID and World Bank consultants during the mid-1990s were left mystified and blaming Aristide and the embargo for the ongoing disaster (Richardson 1997; World Bank 1998; USAID 1998 ).
And that is what I witnessed in 1997 when I went to work on the Jean Makout survey and then later for CARE: A mad anarchic system of food aid, sinistre as the people themselves call it—a word with a double meaning, not only “disaster stricken,” but sinister, ominous, and threatening—where the people didn’t appreciate it, stole it with no sense of remorse, the peasants despised it and complained bitterly that they wanted to grow their own food, the NGO directors in the countryside uniformly disparaged it, and the distributors, the so-called cooperating sponsors (CARE, CRS, World Vision, ADRA), thought that everyone in the country had quit farming and were sitting around waiting for the next food shipment.
And what were the charities up to?
The designers of the plans—U.S. and E.U. government officials and employees of the IDB, the IMF, and the World Bank—provided the development funds, much of which the Haitian government had to pay back, with interest. But as was seen in Jean Makout, it was multinational corporate charities dedicated to helping the poorest of the poor that carried the plan out, delivered the aid, and executed the so-called development projects that were supposed to push the Haitian population and economy in the desired direction. For many of the high-level directors this was defensible: NGOs had budgets and operating costs and, for the largest of these interventionist organizations, the most important means of meeting costs in Haiti was far and away food aid. Donor governments gave money in the form of food; the charities sold the food on the Haitian market and then used the money to meet corporate overhead costs and to carry out programs that were supposed to alleviate suffering. But in the end, in the institutional struggle to survive and in an environment in which accountability did not exist, the world’s largest multinational charities—CARE, CRS, World Vision, and ADRA—executed the political will of institutions, governments, and lobbyists that had identified Haiti’s comparative advantage as low wages, that is, poverty, and in doing so these charitable organizations dedicated to helping the poorest of the poor wound up working to make the people of Haiti even poorer. And this is what was seen in Jean Makout: unraveling economy, disappearing markets, and with nowhere to escape to, the peasants’ withdrawal into near Stone Age subsistence strategies.
Did it have to happen?
It probably did not have to happen. Indeed, what I was part of in 1998 was one of the greatest and longest running foreign aid efforts that has ever occurred. For more than half a century, Haiti had arguably been the site of more religious missions and charities per square foot than any place on earth. Yet with the increase in aid, the situation had gotten worse. What is more, what I discovered and am recounting here about food aid is not a secret. Nor is it unique to Haiti. As it turns out, U.S. food aid was born in 1954 with the passage of PL 480 and the specific goal was not principally to help people but to promote overseas sales of U.S. agricultural produce. The consequences have been devastating throughout the world (see See Appendix D for extensive review and sources).
Why did nobody tell me this?
Could it be that they didn’t know?
Could it be that employees at multinational charities such as CARE were unaware of what was going on with food aid?
The fact is, many of the directors must have been keenly aware of what was going on. Most, as I recounted, admitted as much over cocktails or in private conversations. Of the dozens, if not hundreds of aid workers I spoke to during the time, all agreed that food aid damaged the market.
Yet, when needed, the defense is so easy. It might be bad for the market, but the intentions must be good, why else would the United States be flooding the Haitian market? Most of us buy into it. I did. Moreover, for those profiting from the food, there is added incentive to hold on to the idea that food aid, if bad, must at least be well intended. To think, or perhaps I should say, to admit that the food is part of a plan to encourage poverty would be to recognize yourself as part of that plan. It would require guts and a good conscience to forsake the comfortable salaries, hotels, fine meals, insurance, and pension plans that came with being a professional in the service of the international charitable institutions like CARE, CRS, ADRA, and World Vision.
Getting back to the story, I got another opportunity to investigate charity. CARE wanted to expand its food distribution, so my next job was to investigate orphanages in the Province and neighboring areas and see if it was viable to distribute food to them. The experience was to turn out to be more appalling than the food investigations.