photo courtesy of Foreign Policy
“We don’t just want the money to come to Haiti. Stop sending money. Let’s fix it. Let’s fix it,” declared Republic of Haiti President Michel Martelly three years after the 2010 earthquake. Martelly was referring to foreign aid, $9 billion of which has been pledged to the country since the disaster. But financial aid has of course not been the only item sent to Haiti; the country has experienced a vast influx of goods, including clothing, shoes, food, and in particular, rice. Haiti imports approximately 80% of its rice, making it the country’s most significant food import.
Considering Haiti was self-sufficient in rice production in the 1970s, this should come as an alarming statistic. Along with rice, production of goods in around 200 companies enabled Haiti, at one time, to be a recognized exporter and experience moderate levels of prosperity. In her Foreign Policy article, “Subsidizing Starvation,” Maura R. O’Connor cites U.S. Ambassador to Haiti from 1981 to 1983, Ernest Preeg:
“Haiti was just as far along as anyone else,” said Preeg. “People came to Port-au-Prince to get jobs because it was a burgeoning export economy.” Preeg wrote an article in 1984 in which he echoed the view of many others that Haiti could be the “Taiwan of the Caribbean.”
But starting in the early 90s, these industries crumbled, as international trade embargos — prompted by a military coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide — were implemented and foreign imports began to flood the Haitian market. International organization policies have played a large role in reconfiguring the country’s import trends. Since 1995, as a condition of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank structural adjustment program, Haiti dropped its import tariffs on rice from 50 to 3 percent, making it much more cost effective to purchase foreign rice than produce it.
Taking advantage of this adjustment, some countries, including the United States, implement domestic agricultural subsidies that encourage overproduction of crops and then ship this excess to other parts of the globe, namely developing countries. Today, Haiti is the fifth-largest importer of American rice in the world, much of it coming from Arkansas. O’Connor explains further:
According to the Environmental Working Group, Arkansas farmers received more than $2 billion in direct payments from the federal government between 1995 and 2011, half of which was for rice production. Haiti today imports over 80 percent of its rice from the United States, making it a critical market for farmers in Arkansas.
Though attempts to reduce rice subsidies through a new U.S. Farm Bill are being negotiated, considerable damage is still being done. Haitian citizens, 75 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day, are simply unable to compete in an agricultural market dominated by cheap foreign imports. A removal of binding restrictive import regulations, coupled with recognition of Haiti’s comparative advantage in agriculture and increased investment in Haitian rice production, are the first steps in solving this deeply rooted problem.
But this is easier said than done, as strong national business interests and unmatched negotiation power are hard realities to overcome. Harvard Center for International Development Director, Marcela Escobari, maintains:
Agricultural subsidies are a huge distortion for world markets, particularly the poor. They happen because local interests want to protect their markets. And they do that at the expense of other countries that don’t have the same power to negotiate the bilateral agreements with large powers like the U.S.
Haiti is fully capable of rebuilding a vibrant rice production industry, but the access needed to sell this staple on the world market is not democratized. And while the ineffectiveness and problems associated with foreign aid draw well-deserved attention in the aftermath of the earthquake, a few key words might be added to the discourse: “Stop sending rice. Let’s fix it. Let’s fix it.”
For more information on the topic, watch this video, in which former U.S. President Bill Clinton apologizes for his administration’s Haitian development approach.
This article is cross-posted on the PovertyCure Blog.