Former US President Bill Clinton, now a UN Special Envoy to Haiti, has pledged to foster the country's self-sufficiency after expressing regret for implementing policies during his administration that damaged its agricultural capacity and ability to feed itself.
"That's what we're doing now," he said on 31 March, pointing to efforts to spur coffee and mango production. It was a hopeful sign for those who have long advocated changes in the way the US government delivers food to developing countries.
Clinton told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 10 March about his administration's role in exporting US-subsidized foodstuffs to Haiti, taking advantage of lower tariffs set as a condition on loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.
Among the items was US rice, which was cheaper than the home-grown variety and contributed to the collapse of the Haitian rice industry: 47 percent of Haiti's rice supply was domestically produced in 1988; in 2008 it had plummeted to 15 percent.
Agricultural capacity was also harmed by the flood of food aid sent to cope with humanitarian crises, some of which wound up in local markets. "It was a mistake ... I was a party to ... 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," Clinton told the committee chaired by Senator John F. Kerry.
Clinton described the policy as an effort to "free those places to ... skip agricultural development and go straight into the industrial era", but said it had "failed everywhere it's been tried ... you just can't take the food chain out of production ... it also undermines a lot of the culture, the fabric of life, the sense of self-determination," he told reporters at an international donors' conference at the UN on 31 March.
|It was a mistake ... 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|
"I think it's hugely significant," Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), said of Clinton's comments. "It's very rare that a former president will apologize for anything he did."
CEPR has called on the international community to buy the entire Haitian rice crop over the next two years, which would account for 2.35 percent of total current committed aid funds.
However, "these purchases at the producer level" should not disrupt existing distribution networks, the CEPR said. "Fortunately, many of Haiti's farmers are organized into co-operatives, networks, and other organizations. International donors could, and should, work with these organizations and farmers to develop a plan for buying up the locally produced rice and distributing it as food aid."
Gerald Murray, an anthropologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville who has studied Haitian agriculture, noted that the distribution of free food was necessary during times of humanitarian crisis, but said Clinton's comments reflected a greater awareness "that the agricultural economy has to be supported, and you don't do that by flooding the country with free food" unless it was purchased from local farmers.
"I think it's a huge opening," said Neil Watkins, director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid USA, of Clinton's mea culpa. "If nothing else, he has cast a spotlight on the urgent need for a change in US policy ... which has severely undermined local production in Haiti. We can help Haiti feed itself by making how we provide food assistance more flexible, which will help the country recover and rebuild in the long term."
Lobbying for change
The US Congress is considering a proposal by the Barack Obama administration for $2.8 billion in aid for Haiti, and Watkins and the representatives of 33 development, human rights and faith-based organizations were lobbying to change the way the government delivered it. Nearly all US food aid is produced by American agribusinesses.
In a letter to congressional leaders on 12 April the lobby group asked for "greater flexibility in how we deliver food aid, by permitting local or regional purchase of emergency food aid for Haiti, and the use of emergency non-food assistance, including vouchers, cash transfers, or safety-net programmes."
There are signs that US policy may be shifting. Watkins noted a small pilot programme in the 2007 Farm Bill that earmarked funds for the local and regional purchase of emergency food aid, and to a provision in a 2008 appropriations bill that allowed for similar procurements. "Both of these actions are precedent-setting," he said.
All this is in keeping with the wishes of the Haitian government; President Rene Preval expressed the hope that emergency food aid from abroad would soon come to a halt, saying: "If food and water continues to be sent from abroad, that will undermine Haitian national production and Haitian trade."