Lessons From Haiti: How Food Aid Can Harm


Marion Doss/flickr

In reviewing William Easterly's book on the failures of development aid, The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Effort to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and So Little Good (2006), Nobel laureate Amartya Sen wrote in Foreign Affairs, "The challenge is to respond to the plight of the hopelessly impoverished without neglecting to insist that help come in useful and productive forms."

Or, as the Chinese proverb has it, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime."

If only it were that easy. What if our prospective fisherman is starving? Surely it wouldn't be a problem to give him free fish, at least until he's ready to learn his new trade. What if he doesn't have a fishing pole? Should you give him one? (Maybe you should sell it to him. That way he'd truly value it.) But what if the fish in the pond have already been overfished? What if they are contaminated with toxins? What if fishing requires a prohibitively expensive permit? The potential problems are endless. It isn't surprising that one of the best development blogs out there is titled Good Intentions are Not Enough. Helping distressed people is tough. We've been failing for millennia.

Perhaps the greatest problem is the damage our food aid causes
to farmers in developing countries, who are essential to the future health of their societies.

The U.S. government's good intentions—we are the largest source of international food aid in the world by far, spending about $2 billion in taxpayer money each year—are directed not toward the suffering masses but to American farmers and shippers whose voices are heard most clearly in Washington. Under U.S. law, nearly all of our food aid is produced in the United States—predominantly by large agribusinesses like Archer Daniel Midland—and nearly all is delivered to stricken countries by American shippers. The system is shamefully rife with inefficiencies and misplaced priorities. For one, only 35 percent of the U.S. food aid budget is actually spent on food, according to a Government Accountability Office study from 2007 (PDF).

But perhaps the greatest problem is the damage our food aid causes to farmers in developing countries, who are essential to the future health of their societies. Often in the news lately has been the harm that U.S. deliveries have done to the Haitian rice industry over the past few decades. On March 10, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bill Clinton apologized for his administration's role in exporting cheap U.S. rice to Haiti, undercutting local growers. According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Haitian farmers provided 47 percent of the country's rice in 1988. By the 2008, the figure had dropped to 15 percent. And in a recent report on NPR's Planet Money, reporters described how bags of American rice are still being sold in Haitian markets.

"It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked," said Clinton, who may play a greater role in the future of Haiti than any figure since Toussaint L'Ouverture. (He is U.N. Special Envoy and co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which is deciding how billions in recovery money will be spent.) "It was a mistake," he added. "I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else."

Haitian President René Préval, an agronomist, is so mindful of the harm caused by free food that he was already calling for an end to it in March, a decision that was not universally applauded in his hungry country. The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP), a major distributor of U.S. food aid, began phasing out its large-scale distributions in May under orders from the Préval government. WFP is now offering food and cash to Haitians who are employed on community improvement projects—clearing rubble, installing drainage —"designed in partnership with the Haitian government and with input from beneficiaries." Referring to the lack of free food, Frantz Magellan Pierre-Louis, a spokesperson for the mayor of the town of Jacmel, told The Globe and Mail newspaper in late April, "I don't know what the consequences will be, but I'm sure it's going to be a problem."

More than half a century ago, exactly these sorts of debates were being played out in Ireland and Britain when the Irish potato crop partially failed in the autumn of 1845. Although the potato almost single-handedly kept Ireland's rural population alive, the British government was loath to dispense "gratuitous" aid, believing it best to institute measures that sought to help the Irish help themselves out of their misery. London organized public works projects, offered government-procured food for sale to the laborers, and forbid interference with the Irish export market. After the potato crop failed completely in 1846—which signaled the onset of an acute food crisis—the British government reversed course, ending the public works projects (a failure anyway) and distributing free soup. The soup kitchens were up and running for five months before the government introduced a more restrictive relief scheme that privileged long-term reform over charitable assistance, even though the crisis was far from over. It was a disastrous decision that would be largely maintained even when an additional potato failure (the third in four years) pushed the death toll to a million, earning the catastrophe the title of the Great Irish Famine.

If the British government was fixated on the long-term health of the Irish economy to the detriment of its starving citizens, particularly in the post-1847 phrase of the Famine, the American government (which, it should be noted, is responding to crises outside its borders) is more interested in the quick-fix approach that ignores the realities of the future. Yet it would easy to improve the U.S. government's food aid policies by simply buying food from farmers in the countries affected by the crisis, a practice that has been adopted by most other donor nations. There are signs that Washington is changing its ways, if slowly. A small pilot program in the 2007 Farm Bill and a provision in a 2008 appropriations bill earmarked funds for the local and regional purchase of emergency food aid. The Global Food Security Act, which waiting for a vote in the Senate, would establish a U.S. Emergency Rapid Response to Food Crises Fund that would authorize a $500 million appropriation for the same purpose.

The hope is to create "permanent good out of transient evil." The words were written by Charles Edward Trevelyan, the hardhearted British Treasury official who has been pinned with the blame for the excess deaths of the Famine. Perhaps it's time to acknowledge that Sir Charles wasn't always wrong.