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A continuing effort to answer an elusive, multi-billion-dollar question: "After Haiti's devastating earthquake, where did the aid money go?"

USAID rice Haiti
Haitian women get sacks containing rice in Port-au-Prince on March 6, 2010. The World Food Program launched a food 'surge' in Haiti to boost rations for nearly two million people in the impoverished quake-torn country, a spokeswoman said. (Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images)

Post-quake US food aid hurt Haiti farmers

Senate to reconsider approach in distributing emergency resources.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In the months following Haiti’s devastating January 2010 earthquake, the United States government spent $140 million on a food program that benefited U.S. farmers but has been blamed for hurting Haitian farmers.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sent 90,000 metric tons of American crops to Haiti as part of the Food for Progress and its related Food for Peace programs run by USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That amounted to almost three quarters of the U.S. government aid to Haiti after the earthquake, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Haiti Justice Alliance, a Minnesota-based advocacy organization.

Critics said that sending American food aid to Haiti undermined thousands of Haitian growers who were already struggling against imports of cheaper rice and corn — staples of the Haitian diet.

“If you look at the allocation of food aid after the earthquake, the fact that most of it is (Food for Progress) means that the priority for the U.S. government was exporting food from the U.S.,” said Nathan Yaffe, Board Member of the Haiti Justice Alliance. “The evidence suggests that U.S. foreign aid is structured around our economic needs rather than the humanitarian needs of people we’re supposed to be helping.”

Mounting criticism of the perverse consequences of this kind of aid to Haiti has prompted Washington to give more careful consideration to the plan.

“It’s not really necessary to send to Haiti a lot of food from the United States.”
~Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, director of Peasant Movement of Papay

The U.S. Senate will commence hearings this month to hash out the next U.S. Farm Bill before the 2007 law expires in September and American agriculture policies revert to the 1949 version of the bill. Up for discussion is the controversial Food for Progress Title II food aid program, which has been criticized for undermining local agricultural production in developing nations like Haiti by flooding them with free or cheap U.S. food products.

“For those groups that are focused on international issues in the Farm Bill this is really the key issue,” said Karen Hansen-Kuhn, director of international programs for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “In a time where budgets are really tight and likely to be facing cuts, there is more pressure to think about for flexible mechanisms like local and regional procurement to food aid.”

The 2008 Farm Bill appropriated $2.5 billion to be spent annually on Title II aid programs that send U.S. food products to foreign countries. It also set minimum amounts that must be spent on non-emergency assistance starting at $375 million in 2009 and increasing by $25 million each fiscal year through 2012. Last month, USAID announced it was accepting proposals for an anticipated $140 million in Title II programming in Haiti over the next five years.

USAID officials said they had been spending about $35 million a year on food aid to Haiti, but the figure spiked to $140 million in 2010 because “of the hugely increased food needs that occurred directly after the earthquake,” said Adam Reinhart, agricultural and food security adviser at USAID.

Officials said the earthquake initially disrupted local markets and supply chains so drastically that importing in-kind food was a helpful early response.

“Faced with the task of distributions to approximately three million people, we first were engaged in blanket food distributions. We then adapted and moved to a more targeted assistance,” said Adam Norikane, Food for Peace Officer at USAID.

But Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, director of the Haitian farmers collective Peasant Movement of Papay, said the agency should have — could have — bought products from Haitian farmers.

“After the earthquake, the country needed food to help the victims in some places. But it’s not really necessary to send to Haiti a lot of food from the United States,” Jean-Baptiste said. “We received too much food, when locally it was possible to find food to buy to help the people.”

Buy local

A 2009 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found it would cost the U.S. approximately the same to buy food for aid in Latin American countries. But the cost of switching to “local and regional procurement” in Haiti was highest of 15 countries studied.

USAID officials point out that during the 12 months