August 13, 2010; Source: MercyCorps.org | Finally, sustainable relief for Haiti is reaching the policy level. Mercy Corps is the recipient of a recent $12.5 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide food vouchers to 100,000 Haitians. The vouchers can be exchanged for local or regional procurement of food, which will help support local markets. Another grant of $35 million was awarded to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to support Cash-for-Work and Food-for-Work programs in earthquake-affected areas.
The story of rice, made a staple Haitian product by international trade agreements, exemplifies the need for this type of program. For decades, subsidized rice from the U.S. infiltrated the Haitian market, driving local producers far into the red, and the price of locally produced rice sky-high. The effects of the policy, for which apologies were recently issued from the likes of former President Clinton and Chief humanitarian coordinator for the UN, John Holmes, were exacerbated after the earthquake, when 15,000 metric tons of donated U.S. rice landed in Haiti and was given away for free.
The influx made headlines, shouting a message long touted by aid workers, that foreign imports and aid were actually damaging Haiti’s chances of recovery, and the publicity might have helped USAID change its tune. In February, when aid to Haiti took center stage, the agency began to review whether its policies were having a negative impact. Six months later, they are granting multi-million dollar distributions to facilitate the growth and eventual stability of Haitian farmers.
No summary of these headlines would be complete without recognizing the extra burdens placed on Haitian farmers by urban flight, and that the Mercy Corps aid monies will focus on two rural regions, Central Plateau and Lower Artibonite, that have seen their populations burgeon this year. Food infrastructures in these parts of the country have subsequently been rendered inadequate, the development of which is one task that the UN’s WFP aims to tackle.Of course, the real test will be how well this type of development takes hold in policy circles, in Washington and beyond. There are many players, and even more moving parts in deciding Haiti’s food security, but, frankly, USAID’s $12.5 million is a pittance compared to the overall sum donated to relief efforts by individuals and governments alike. More, if past policy mistakes are repeated, the gains made by aid workers in the interim will be awash in a sea of, well, rice, or sorghum, or any other subsidized crop that can contend locally. For now, we’ll applaud USAID’s small step in the right direction, and congratulate the recipient nonprofits, whose work we’ll be sure to watch in the coming months.—James David Morgan