Behind Haiti’s hungerBy Richard B. Muhammad | Last updated: Oct 28, 2013 - 4:44:59 PM
Recently, however, international aid agencies have raised a cry of alarm. Some two-thirds of all Haitians—almost 7 million people—are hungry. About 1.5 million of them—twice as many as last year—face “severe” or “acute food insecurity.” Why?
A new five-part investigative series sheds some light on the issue by considering the structural causes, as well as by taking a look at the inefficiencies and what one government official calls “the perverse effects” of food assistance.
Haiti’s agricultural sector has long languished, ignored by its governments and by foreign donors. Agriculture represents about 25 percent of the country’s GDP, and until recently it employed— directly or indirectly—up to two-thirds of the population.
Yet for several decades there has been little investment. The Ministry of Agriculture usually gets less than 5 percent of the government’s budget, and until recently, foreign funding for food aid far outstripped—and sometimes more than doubled—funding for agriculture.
In 2009, a mission from the UN High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis deplored “the abandon of agricultural sector and of national production for the past three decades” and also criticized the government and various foreign government and non-governmental agencies for “multiple strategies and programs, which are sometimes contradictory” and for the “endless conferences that do not deliver any concrete results.”
Other issues—like the land tenure system, deforestation and other environmental degradation, and lack of adequate seeds, fertilizer and roads—all play a part in declining agricultural output.
But the sector has also had to contend with an influx of more-cheaply produced, and sometimes subsidized, foreign food—especially U.S. rice—beginning in 1995 when the Haitian government slashed tariffs under pressure from Washington and the international financial institutions.
Whereas the country imported less than 20 percent of its food in the early 1980s, Haiti now gets over 55 percent from overseas, mostly the U.S. and the Dominican Republic.
Since the 2010 earthquake, the government and foreign donors have launched programs aimed at redressing these wrongs. Roads are being built and canals dredged, and various projects aim to help farmers up their productivity.
But in Grande Anse, one of the most verdant and productive provinces, agronomists are worried.
“Grande Anse was the breadbasket for the other provinces,” Vériel Auguste said. “But not anymore. We are losing that potential.”
As he stood in his demonstration garden, where he grows root crops, grains and trees in an effort to inspire members of his cooperative, Mr. Auguste said that nearby, other gardens sit empty.
“People leave their land,” he said, because of the lack of technical support and because their crops cannot compete with cheaper foreign food. “Not far from here are a series of beautiful fields with good land! They are closed. The people have left.”