Let’s Not Make the Same Mistakes

The horrific disaster in the Philippines has rocked political boats around the world. This kind of devastation is predicted to become more frequent as the Earth’s climate continues changing. Even if the Conference on Climate Change takes drastic action (which no reasonable observers expect), the train has left the station on emissions levels, and many scientists now argue that we are barreling past tipping points in climate change. These are depressing propositions to be sure, and they are a sobering reminder that the time to improve our emergency response mechanisms and protocols is right now.

As the world struggles to respond to this most recent disaster, it would behoove our leaders to consider policy changes based on the lessons learned from the 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti. Particularly, the United States must change the way it distributes food aid, especially in the midst of a disaster.

After the earthquake struck in January, the United States spent $140 million on a USAID program that sent food grown in the United States to Haiti. This amount represents nearly three quarters of United States aid to Haiti in following the quake. Sending food to people in need is an intuitive response, but one that is increasingly regarded as both ineffective and counterproductive in the long term for recipients.

The reason is that a massive influx of food through an aid program disrupts and re-orders local markets, which are often precarious at the outset. The food aid displaces local producers, and in doing so clears the way for commercial imports of staple crops. This process completely overturns any levels of food sovereignty as countries become reliant on imports to meet their needs. Haiti is a stark example, importing 80% of its rice. This makes sense for farmers in the United States, but not for Haitians, whose country is capable of producing a large enough rice crop each year to be a net exporter.

“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 the poor countries and relieve them of the burden of producing their own food, so, thank goodness, they can leap directly into the industrial era. It has not worked. It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked.” –Bill Clinton

Haiti is now struggling under immense financial pressures that are driving farmers to focus their energy on export crops. Thus, Haiti is in a situation where its farmers produce mangoes and purchase US-grown rice with their earnings. Hardly a sensible system for a country capable of producing its own food and avoiding the layers of middlemen and transaction costs associated with export agriculture.

Time for Reform

Right now, the Quixote Center is part of a coalition of NGOs and grassroots networks advocating for food aid reform. We are calling for increased flexibility in the system that will allow for more local purchases of food aid when possible. What we hope for is a system that allows rapid and efficient response to all types of food emergencies. In cases where local production is disrupted, sending food to people in need makes sense.

However, this public aid should not be used as a tool to prop up United States farmers to the detriment of farmers in recipient countries. Our coalition advocates for changes such that, when possible, food aid comes by making local purchases for people in need. These purchases are more efficient in that the food does not have to travel from Arkansas, and it is more productive in the long term because it increases the viability of local markets and maintains existing levels of food sovereignty.

The United States can do better, but whether or not we improve is dependent on Members of Congress now considering Food Aid Reform as part of the Farm Bill. We have set up a system through which you can contact your Member of Congress and express your support for key issues like food reform, aid accountability, and the ongoing displaced persons crisis in Port-au-Prince.

If you would like to get more directly involved in the effort to reform our system of food aid, please contact Andrew Hochhalter for more information.

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