Monday, August 29, 2016

When aid isn't humanitarian

Haiti has among the highest rates of chronic poverty in the world. Almost one-third of all childhood deaths are due to under-nutrition. Although almost 80 percent of rural households farm, the agriculture sector with its persistent litany of natural disasters receives less than 4 percent of Haiti’s budget.

Peanut growers in Haiti have united to block the delivery of a 500-tonne shipment of nuts from the US. The shipment threatens to undermine the livelihood of thousands of people in the country. From Oxfam to Partners in Health, there has been fierce reaction to the “commodity dumping” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This program does nothing to boost capacity in Haiti and does nothing to address consistent food insecurity,” said Oxfam America senior researcher Marc Cohen.

"The dumping of these peanuts will create a big catastrophe, even bigger than the destruction of our rice production," said Jean Pierre Ricot, an agriculture expert. "Hundreds of thousands of families lost their livelihoods because of those policies. To face the problem, we need a fundamental battle to stop these policies."

Clearly, Haiti’s own peanut market stands to lose when surplus peanuts from the United States are flown in as food aid. This seemingly noble act of donating peanuts to Haiti has rightly been criticized as undermining the already struggling smallholding peanut farmers in Haiti. The USDA is looking for an international outlet for the domestic surplus of peanuts. From a Haitian farmer’s perspective, such dumping is a dangerous threat to an agricultural economy. It is merely the latest wave in similar policies that have marginalized Haitian farmers and worsened food security. The most notable example is subsidized US rice flooding the Haitian market. People bitterly remember example is the collapse of the local rice market. Haiti was largely self-sufficient in rice by the mid-1980s. But in subsequent years, Haiti repeatedly slashed tariffs on cheaper imported rice at the behest of the U.S. and the World Bank. As a result, U.S. subsidized rice inundated the market and the Caribbean country roughly the size of Maryland is now the second-biggest export destination for American rice growers, Also, in the early 1980s, fearing Haiti’s Creole pigs could spread African swine fever amid a deadly outbreak, the U.S. Congress authorized $23 million to slaughter local pigs and replace them with hybrid pigs from Iowa. The imported pigs struggled to adapt, often became sick and had few litters.

International aid experts warn that the US peanut donation could eventually become another cautionary tale about humanitarian aid from a wealthy nation that undermines a flimsy economy in a poor one. Smallholding Haitian peanut farmers and their families ultimately stand to lose. Critics say agricultural surplus aid and heavily subsidized food imports do more harm than good by undercutting local farmers and pushing Haiti further from self-sufficiency.

In the United States, there is the Marketing Assistance Loan program provides up-front financing to peanut-growers (and growers of other crops). The goal is that farmers repay the loans once they sell their crops. But if the price is too low to recoup the cost of the loan, they can also turning the product over to the government as a form of repayment. In other words, he U.S. government lends U.S. farmers money to grow peanuts, the farmers repay the government in excess peanuts, and the government ships the surplus peanuts to Haiti. A glut of peanuts has pushed prices lower, meaning that more farmers are handing their peanuts over to the Department of Agriculture instead of paying off their loans. Reuters estimates that about 145,000 tons of peanuts were forfeited to government last year. "That stockpile is enough to satisfy the average annual consumption of over 20 million Americans — more than the population of Florida," Reuters's Chris Prentice writes, "and puts the administration in a bind." After all, storing those peanuts is expensive and selling all of them could just push prices lower.

As part of a "humanitarian effort" to Haiti, the USDA crafted a deal that will result in 500 metric tons of packaged, dry-roasted peanuts grown in the United States to be shipped later this year to school children in Haiti who have little access to food," the department reports. Problem partially solved.

Except Haiti already grow their own peanuts. In January of last year, the U.S. government's Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative praised an effort to bolster peanut production by Haitian farmers. That effort was funded in part by the Clinton Foundation, which created the Acceso Peanut Enterprise Corporation to partner with a non-profit called Meds & Food for Kids and the University of Georgia.

In 2014, the Haitian peanut market was hampered when one use for the product -- providing a nutrient-rich food for malnourished children -- was undercut by American food donations. The World Food Programme had been buying peanut butter from Meds & Food for Kids and the Clinton partnership -- about half of the group's sales went to creating the paste -- but switched to a soy-corn blend after the United States Agency for International Development oversupplied the product in anticipation of a bad hurricane season. "No one seems to have pondered the local implications of the decision," the Guardian wrote at the time.

That appears to be the case once again. “If the U.S. really wanted to help Haiti they would focus on serious work improving irrigation and farmers’ access to credit,” said Haitian economist and activist Camille Chalmers, who argues that the peanut aid is mainly about drawing down the U.S. stockpile and benefiting American agribusiness.

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