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The international community must own its role in Haiti’s food crisis

It’s time for a different approach in Haiti – one that reckons with the enduring harms Global North policies have inflicted in the country.

A survivor of the August 2021 earthquake, which claimed over 2,200 lives and destroyed thousands of houses and other key infrastructure in Haiti’s southern peninsula, holds a cob of corn in a camp set up for those displaced by the disaster.
A survivor of the August 2021 earthquake, which claimed over 2,200 lives and destroyed thousands of houses and other key infrastructure in Haiti’s southern peninsula, holds a cob of corn in a camp set up for those displaced by the disaster. (Ricardo Arduengo/REUTERS)

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Most coverage of Haiti’s worsening food crisis consists of human misery stories and a seemingly endless string of manmade and natural disasters. But a meaningful understanding of the crisis – and the forces behind it – requires shifting our gaze to the international community.

The widespread protests that have been erupting for weeks across Haiti, and the skyrocketing price of food items globally, underscore the urgent need to learn these lessons and take a different path to avoid more hunger, pain, and suffering.

Escalating gang violence, rising costs, inflation, and government inaction are just a few of the triggers that have sparked the discontent in Haiti. While some issues have been exacerbated by the country’s ongoing political stalemate, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the repercussions of the pandemic, the international community and its centuries of harmful intervention are also to blame.

International “help” has included: a cholera epidemic, which killed more than 10,000 people and was linked to a sewage leak at a UN base after the devastating 2010 earthquake; women and girls being sexually abused and exploited by UN peacekeepers; the propping up of successive governments that dismantled Haiti’s democractic institutions; and loan conditions that decimated the country’s agricultural self-sufficiency and put farmers out of business.

Today, thanks to that steady foreign intervention that reshaped Haiti’s agriculture and trade, the Caribbean nation that once boasted abundant riches of cotton, sugar, and coffee has one of the highest levels of food insecurity in the world. 

How imports led to disaster

For a long period, Haiti had been largely agriculturally self-sufficient. But the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund imposed sweeping economic reforms in the mid-1980s that undercut domestic food production and fostered an over-reliance on US food imports. 

After the implementation of these reforms, which included the lowering of tariffs on key agricultural products, the implementation of a free-floating exchange rate regime, and the elimination of import quotas, these imports – including USAID bags of rice, which soon became infamous – immediately began to flood the Haitian market. 

Haitians increasingly consumed imported goods, and they soon became a staple of people’s everyday diet, putting Haitian farmers out of business. 

To give a clearer picture, after the implementation of these trade liberalisation policies, Haiti went from importing less than 5 percent of the rice it consumed – or 7,337 tons – from the United States in 1985, to importing nearly 260,000 tons in 2005.

Haiti has since been under pressure from international financial institutions and donor countries to maintain these policies in order to ensure continued aid

This over-reliance on imported food has left Haiti extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in global food prices and negatively impacted the country’s food sovereignty. 

Changing the narrative

For decades, the international community has ignored these glaring violations of Haitians’ self-determination, but the good news is that this could be changing.

In May, The New York Times published a front-page series on the legacy of the debt Haiti was forced to pay to French slaveholders after becoming the first modern nation to win its independence from a slave uprising, and on the ill-fated campaign by former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide for accountability and redress.

Following a year-long investigation, the Times report – which built on years of historical expertise – became the first in the publication’s history to be translated into Haitian Creole.

As news outlets begin to rethink their Haitian narrative and acknowledge the detrimental effects of foreign interference in Haiti, foreign governments and national and international financial institutions must also recognise the problem and learn from their mistakes.

As Haitians’ access to basic rights is further impeded by the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the country, it's time for a different approach in Haiti – one that reckons with the enduring harms Global North policies have inflicted in the country.

As a first step, it’s time to recognise the cycle of unjust debt and aid dependence imposed on Haiti by the international community, which impedes Haiti’s autonomy and renders it vulnerable to accepting these harmful foreign policies in the first place. 

The international community can start to make amends for its previous interference in the country by listening to Haitians’ wishes – for food sovereignty and beyond.

As such, prioritising debt cancellation and grants, for instance through the issuance of Special Drawing Rights at the International Monetary Fund, which gives immediate help for countries to recover from shock and support urgent basic needs, can assist in returning power to the country to decide its own future.

At the same time, the international community should implement policies that reduce Haiti’s vulnerability and strengthen its self-determination and self-sufficiency, rather than impede its socio-economic development through conditional loans that continue to prioritise foreign interests over long-term, rights-based development.

In the agricultural sector that may mean supporting the long-term priorities of local residents in their path towards sustainability, increased productivity, and being climate smart. This also means refraining from bypassing local knowledge and organisations.

Haitians have indeed long been calling on their government to prioritise national production in the agriculture sector to promote the country’s food sovereignty, based on comprehensive agrarian reform. 

The international community can start to make amends for its previous interference in the country by listening to Haitians’ wishes – for food sovereignty and beyond.

Why the urgency?

Global food prices are increasing at an alarming rate, and are expected to rise by another 120 to 180 percent by 2030 due, in part, to the effects of climate change. 

This is particularly harmful for the majority of Haitians: Just one plate of food already costs the average Haitian 35 percent of their daily income; for rural families, that number climbs to 60 percent. The volatility of the gourde, the country’s currency, has further compounded the crisis, with inflation hovering around 30 percent in July.

Haiti’s agriculture sector never recovered from the flood of US imports – it is forecast to produce just 70,000 tons of rice between 2022 and 2023, but will likely import 515,000 tons, or 85 percent of what it consumes. This means Haitians who can’t afford imported food have no local alternative to turn to.

The Haitian government bears a heavy responsibility for the food insecurity Haitians face on a daily basis, due to pervasive corruption that drives inflation and diverts resources from agricultural projects to politicians’ pockets. 

But the international community must also shoulder responsibility for the predictable consequence of conditioned aid that destroyed Haiti’s domestic agriculture production and dealt a crushing blow to its food sovereignty.

Haitians who can’t afford imported food have no local alternative to turn to.

It was entirely foreseeable that the misguided notion of relieving Haiti of producing its own food would only create dependence on foreign imports and a transfer of wealth from the Haitian market to the coffers of the Global North. 

Former US President Bill Clinton admitted as much in 2010 when he delivered a much-delayed apology for the US role in Haiti’s protracted food crisis. But apologies – when they come – are lacking in concrete action. 

International policies that generate hunger in Haiti are not just reprehensible, they are illegal, violating extraterritorial obligations (ETOs), which have been increasingly recognised by national and international courts and global treaty-monitoring bodies. 

ETOs dictate that states must avoid acts that create a foreseeable risk of nullifying or impairing the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights beyond their borders.

Unfortunately, the systemic violation of Haitians’ human rights through failed foreign policies – and a profound lack of accountability in implementing them – doesn’t stop at the food crisis.

Those same policies that destroyed Haiti’s agricultural sector helped replace it with a problematic garment industry that has resulted in widespread rights violations and continued poverty, with Haitian garment workers – whose protests in response to those violations have garnered recent international attentionpaying the price.

The author is senior staff lawyer at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). IJDH and its Haitian partner, public interest law firm the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), have worked alongside marginalised communities in Haiti since 1995 to force foreign actors engaging in ostensibly humanitarian work to comply with their international law obligations towards the people they claim to help.

Edited by Helen Morgan.

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