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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?"

Post-quake US food aid hurt Haiti farmers

Senate to reconsider approach in distributing emergency resources.

around the earthquake, the agency’s direct food aid represented only part of total U.S. agricultural and food aid programs to Haiti. In this same period, Haitians received $47 million in vouchers or cash to buy food locally — though many staple foods found in Haitian markets are also imported and are often cheaper than Haitian products.

Today aid going to Haiti in the Food for Progress and Food for Peace programs supplements — it doesn’t replace — the diets of particularly vulnerable people such as children and pregnant and lactating women, U.S. officials said.

“This is the poorest of poor who are getting this,” Reinhart said.

USAID officials also said the amount of food sent to Haiti in this program equals a small fraction of the country’s total food imports. For example, Haiti already imports 26,000 metric tons of rice each month, or 80 percent of the nation’s consumption.

Still, the agency acknowledged the danger that such food aid can pose to local agricultural markets. An April 2010 USAID briefing warned that “in the medium and long term, large volumes of food aid would affect production as they would lower prices and thus reduce local production incentives.”

Because of a provision that effectively requires approximately two-thirds of Title II food aid to travel on U.S. ships, often the aid doesn’t reach its destination until the most pressing need has already passed.

“When food aid arrives at the wrong time, it can undermine local production,” said Hansen-Kuhn. “If you have emergency state declared but then the food aid doesn’t arrive for four to six months because it has to arrive on a U.S. carrier, it can undermine production by local farmers long after the emergency situation is over.”

The April USAID briefing concluded the impact of U.S. crops in Haitian markets just after the quake would be temporary. And Food for Progress spending in Haiti has since returned to pre-quake levels.

Export or aid?

The U.S. government began purchasing American crops to export as food aid with the 1954 Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, which aimed to expand U.S. markets. That act outlined minimum amounts the United States had to spend on the program each year regardless of humanitarian needs in other nations. Haiti Justice Alliance’s Yaffe said he believes this shows the U.S. government’s first priority was to recoup costs of the program, not to help foreigners in need.

Experts who study Haitian agriculture say the food aid is just one way U.S. policies have undermined Haitian farmers.

In March, at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Former President Bill Clinton said it was a mistake to pressure Haiti into reducing tariffs on food imported from the United States, including rice. Clinton is now the U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti and has become a key figure in raising funds for Haiti’s post-earthquake recovery.

“Since 1981, the United States has followed a policy, until the last year or so when we started rethinking it, that we rich countries that produce a lot of food should sell it to poor countries and relieve them of the burden of producing their own food, so, thank goodness, they can leap directly into the industrial era,” Clinton said. “It has not worked. It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked."

In 1986, Congress also approved the Bumpers Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, which bars the government from helping farmers abroad increase the yields of crops that could compete with staple American exports. Critics like Jean-Baptiste say it’s the reason current USAID programming in Haiti focuses on developing export goods like mangos, cacao and coffee, but largely ignores staples like rice and corn.

One important USAID program in Haiti does include some rice and corn growers. The $127 million Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources hopes to boost Haitian agriculture through training, better seeds and the use of new fertilizers. USAID claims to have helped 9,700 farmers increase their output since the program began in 2009.

Many Haitian farmers rejected the program, however, after they discovered that 475 tons of seeds were hybrids donated by Monsanto, the world’s largest developer of genetically modified seeds. Unlike traditional crops, hybrids do not produce new seeds that can be collected and planted the following growing season, meaning farmers in Haiti would need to begin purchasing the seeds from Monsanto or another company once donations stopped. 

“In Haiti, people each year conserve their own seeds for the next year. But USAID doesn’t want to promote this kind of agriculture,” Jean-Baptiste said. 

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in cooperation with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. An earlier version of the story was published by the Center for Public Integrity at iWatch News.