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Helping Haitians Help Themselves

Helping Haitians Help Themselves

It's not often that a politician admits he or she made a mistake, but recently, none other than former President Bill Clinton did just that. For what did he recant? As the Washington Post reports, he apologized "for championing policies that destroyed Haiti's rice production. Clinton in the mid-1990s encouraged the impoverished country to dramatically cut tariffs on imported U.S. rice." As a result, local agriculture was destroyed and impoverished counties, who had formerly relied on rice production, were left unable to feed themselves. "It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas," Clinton said, "but it has not worked. It was a mistake."

Presidents Clinton and Bush - partners in the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund - arrived in Haiti this week to survey damage done by the earthquake and meet with leaders in the community. President Clinton's apology came in advance of the March 31st Haiti donors conference at the United Nations, in which Haiti is asking for $722 million for agriculture, out of an overall request of $11.5 billion. The Post notes that "51 percent of the food consumed in the country is imported, including 80 percent of all rice eaten" - in other words, Haiti's agricultural infrastructure is nearly non-existent. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Haiti "has become dependent on imports and food aid for 75 percent of its needs."

Haiti received some good financial news recently as the Inter-American Development Bank agreed to release Haiti of $479 million in debt. That amounts to nearly 40% of the impoverished nation's outstanding debt. Perhaps, many argue, it is time to invest in agricultural development, as opposed to simply flooding the market with cheap grain. Indeed, of the $722 million requested by Haiti for agriculture, only $31 million is marked for repairing fields - the rest is, as the Post reports, "for future projects restoring Haiti's dangerous and damaged watersheds, improving irrigation and infrastructure, and training farmers and providing them with better support."

As the New York Times points out, "Haiti's farmers need relatively little in the way of inputs to dramatically boost production, they say. Simple, steady irrigation, a small tractor, and small quantities of fertilizers can dramatically increase yields." What Haitian farms need most, however, is workers - ironic, given the 80% (that's right: 80%) unemployment rate in rural Haiti before the earthquake. Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, most international aid groups are still focused on providing food aid. If we are to provide the highest level of tzedakah for Haiti, however, we must help Haiti grow its own food so that it, in turn, can help its own citizens help themselves.

Published: 3/24/2010

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