The foreign roots of Haiti’s hunger

2016 10 13 Women sitting on bags of foreign food aid rice by Logan Abassi.jpg

After Hurricane Matthew, Haitian women sit on bags of foreign rice from the UN’s World Food Program. “Much of the food that is distributed as food aid is imported and, as a consequence, domestic production is not used.” Credit: UN Photo/Logan Abassi

By Milo Milfort, Haiti Liberté, Nov. 9, 2016

At the beginning of October 2016, Hurricane Matthew ripped through three of Haiti’s southern departments (Nippes, South, and Grand'Anse), causing terrible destruction. Along with infectious diseases, such as cholera, hunger has spiked in the aftermath.

"The people are desperate, their plantations destroyed and difficult to access. Hunger is at the door." This was the cry for help of the residents of Counoubois, a rural section of Chambelan in the Grand'Anse region that went viral on social media networks for several days after Hurricane Matthew passed through.

Grand'Anse is Haiti’s bread-basket, but now its agriculture is more than 80% destroyed. In other regions, food stores have suffered serious damage, and the availability of local produce is reduced. Livestock has been lost in some areas, fishing is paralyzed, all subsistence crops have been lost, and fruit trees have been severely damaged. Matthew left at least 546 dead, 128 missing, and 2.1 million victims throughout the country, according to Haitian authorities.

The history of Counoubois symbolizes the reality of many hard-hit rural regions, which are not easily accessible due to the lack of infrastructure. About 1.4 million Haitians need food assistance, more than half of them –  800,000 – urgent food assistance, according to an emergency assessment carried out by the Haitian government, the National Organization for Food Security (CNSA), the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The report they produced at the end of October confirms "the pressing need to provide immediate food assistance and to help rebuild people's livelihoods."

"If we do not act now to provide them the grains, fertilizers, and other materials they need, they will not be able to plant and will face persistent food insecurity," said Nathanaël Hishamunda, the FAO’s Haiti representative.

Hurricane Matthew has worsened a situation that was already complicated. For five years, Haiti has been ranked among the world’s 15 most hungry countries. Almost 75% of the population lives in poverty, with millions of people living in extreme poverty. Before the hurricane, getting enough to eat in Haiti was already a luxury for many. By August 2016, the number of people in a situation of food insecurity was close to 3.2 million.

As with previous disasters, most international humanitarian aid consists essentially of thousands of tons of food distributed in certain key affected areas. But what explains the constant hunger that prevails in Haiti?

A History of Poverty

"Poverty in Haiti is not a natural phenomenon,” explained Haitian sociologist Franck Seguy. “History records its process and progress. The process has been done in collaboration with Haitians, not with all of them, but with government leaders and the ruling class allied with the international bourgeoisie, in particular in the United States and its farmers. Looking for markets, they identified Haiti as an ideal place to sell U.S. products. To do this, they are forced to systematically destroy Haiti’s domestic production, which is precisely what has been done until now.”

According to Seguy, after its 1804 revolution, Haiti was forced to compensate France. To pay this debt, Haitian governments used domestic production, including coffee, sold to speculators who paid taxes to the state. Given that between 1825 and 1922 Haiti’s bourgeoisie did not pay taxes, payment of the “independence debt” came essentially from the sweat of farmers.

The leading role of other countries in creating the objective conditions for Haiti’s hunger is often ignored. In 1825, the King of France, Charles X, forced Haiti, which had proclaimed its independence 21 years earlier after defeating Napoleon's army, to sign a treaty where, in return for recognition of the new nation, France would receive a compensation of 150 million gold francs. That amount was to be paid within five years.

Unfortunately, the sum represented 10 years of Haiti’s tax revenue. Jean Pierre Boyer, Haiti’s president at the time, had no choice but to accept, as France’s negotiators were accompanied by a flotilla of 14 warships.

"From Haiti’s independence in 1804 until today, debt contributes to the creation of hunger,” said Professor Seguy. “Most of the funds that the state could have invested in domestic production were used to pay interest on the debt."

Since the 1980s, international actors such as the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the U.S. government have imposed neoliberal economic policies on Haitian rulers. In Seguy’s view, this constitute "the recipe for a debt crisis."

From this period and until now, every World Bank project and every new loan from the IMF, including Haiti's debt restructuring and cancellation, has been conditioned on, among other things, more adjustments, privatization of public companies, elimination of subsidies, deregulation of labor markets, liberalization of markets, reduction of tariffs, and elimination of barriers to free trade.

Neoliberal Policies

In 1995, under the pressure from Washington, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government reduced practically to zero the tariffs on several foodstuffs. The IMF demanded this as a condition that the U.S. government imposed on Aristide to be able to return to the country after the 1991 coup. Thus, taxes on imported rice went from 35% to 3%. Haiti became the country with the lowest customs tariffs in the Caribbean.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) played a leading role in deepening Haiti's hunger. During his time as governor of Arkansas – a major rice producer – and as president, he helped weaken Haiti’s domestic rice production (a strategic product) in favor of Arkansas growers looking for new markets for their products.

"It destroyed Haiti’s potential by invading with cheap rice,” explained Professor Seguy. “From that moment on, rice producers in the Artibonite Valley could not find a market for their product and could not afford to grow. When they stopped growing, imported rice producers increased their prices in order to recover their losses and make a profit."

In 2005, the Haitian government spent $52 million to repay debt arrears to the World Bank in a period when the country could have used the money to deal with various structural problems.

In his "mea culpa" in 2010, Bill Clinton acknowledges having made the wrong decision in trying to solve Haiti’s problem of hunger by filling the Haitian market with rice imported from the United States. He admits that this decision hurt small Haitian farmers and producers by abruptly reducing domestic production.

Even today, it is easier and cheaper to buy American rice in Haitian markets than that produced in Haiti. This has led to the impoverishment of thousands of peasant families who have left the countryside to live in city slums. In the 1970s and 1980s, Haiti had 98% grain self-sufficiency. Today, it imports almost everything.

In 2006, a report from Christian Aid revealed that the results of Haiti’s lowered tariffs  "have been disastrous." In this sense, excessive trade liberalization is closely related to falling agricultural production, growing poverty, exodus from the countryside to poor neighborhoods, and increasing hunger, according to the NGO.

These radical policies have crowned more than 200 years of what the Haitian economist Fred Doura calls an "extroverted" economy of a country totally "dominated and exploited" by foreign powers like France and the U.S., among others.

Humanitarian aid has its share of contributing to creating hunger in Haiti. Much of the food that is distributed as food aid is imported and, as a consequence, domestic production is not used, as has been seen in the days following Hurricane Matthew, just like after the January 2010 earthquake.

In these cases, instead of strengthening the country's capacity by buying directly from Haitian farmers who could in turn reinvest, products are imported from the Dominican Republic and the United States, which destroys national production.

 

The original version of this article was first published by Spain’s El Diario and is the second in a series of articles and specials of the FAM project (www.projectefam.cc) on hunger, in collaboration with eldiario.es.

 

Posted Nov. 9, 2016