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HAITI: Aid Flowing, But Food Crisis Drags On

Sonali Salgado

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 2 2009 (IPS) - Though beleaguered with their own financial problems, donor countries say they are not planning to withdraw financial support for cash-strapped Haiti.

In late July, when discussing the latest report by the Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Haiti, U.N. delegates reaffirmed their respective nations’ commitment to aiding the Caribbean nation.

The commitment to help Haiti comes at a time when the global financial crisis has forced most donors to renege on funding for AIDS research, climate change research, and higher education programmes.

But as Jean Claude Fignole, the director of ActionAid Haiti, told IPS, “International aid cooperation has actually not decreased to Haiti this year.”

“In fact,” he said, “a slight, marginal increase to 50 billion gourdes (approximately 1.25 billion dollars) is projected” for the 2010 budget.

Fignole attributed the international attention largely to the recent naming of former U.S. President Bill Clinton as U.N. special envoy to Haiti.

When Clinton attended a donor conference for Haiti earlier this year, donor countries pledged 324 million dollars over the next two years.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also increased international awareness about Haiti with his visit to the country in March.

In its report, the Group commended both Ban and Clinton for reinvigorating the “sense that Haiti deserved a high level of support.”

The Ad Hoc Advisory Group also called on the international community “to stay the course and to consider increasing their support for Haiti”.

“The next two years will be decisive for Haiti as the social and economic situation in the country remains extremely fragile.”

Last April, riots erupted around the nation in response to rising costs of food – specifically, rice, beans and fruit – and oil.

By the time the demonstrations ceased, five civilians had been killed, and Haiti’s senators had ousted then Prime Minister Alexis, whom many had blamed for failing to address the food crisis.

The country has been relatively calm since, but the Ad Hoc Advisory Group warned that Haitians could easily “relapse into social unrest”.

The food crisis, after all, still plagues Haitians. Though the government has been subsidising food prices since the April riots, as Bettina Luescher of the World Food Programme told IPS, “prices are still higher than the four-year average”.

Meanwhile, remittances from Haitians abroad – which account for 20 percent of Haiti’s GDP – have slowed since last year due to the global financial crisis.

Aggravating Haiti’s food problems, the 2008 hurricanes devastated more than 70 percent of Haiti’s agriculture.

Now, as the Group wrote in their report, over a third of the Haitian population is food insecure, “with pockets of acute malnutrition in remote areas where distribution of aid remains a challenge.”

Concomitantly, Haitians are struggling with the infrastructure damage wrought by the 2008 hurricane season.

In Gonavies, Haiti’s fourth largest city, mud still coats the streets and houses after last year’s heavy rains sent mud tumbling from Haiti’s deforested mountains and onto the coastal city.

Around the nation, Haitians are goading their cars through dilapidated back roads.

As the U.S. government reported in a travelers’ warning issued last week, the Haitian government has yet to complete the reparation of its transport infrastructure, which hurricanes damaged last summer.

When the Group visited Haiti in May, many told them that “tangible improvements in the daily lives of the Haitian people were needed to ‘lock in’ the peace and security achieved by the Government with support from MINUSTAH.”

Accordingly, in their report, the Group advised the international community and the Haitian government to work on bringing economic “rights” to Haitians. In particular, the Group called for “rapid job creation” and “foreign investment” in Haiti’s private sector.

The Group asked the international community to provide Haiti with programmes like the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through the Partnership Encouragement Act, a U.S. law that gives preferential treatment to U.S. goods.

It also suggested that the Haitian government that Haiti set up free trade zones, where it could produce garments for export, as Professor Paul Collier recommended in his report “Haiti: from natural catastrophe to economic security.”

But some say that Haiti would develop better without the international community’s advice and attention.

Charles Arthur, director of the Haiti Support Group, a British-based NGO that supports “the Haitian people in their struggle for justice, human rights, and participatory democracy,” told IPS, “The international community has paid too much attention to Haiti and nearly all the wrong kind.”

According to Arthur, for years, the international community has been “backing – politically and financially – the most reactionary arm of the private sector” instead of the country’s poor, agrarian majority.

In order to find out what needs to be done in Haiti, he told IPS, “We should listen to the country’s civil society organisations, which are more linked into the aspirations of the poor majority than any other entities.”

Instead of setting up free trade zones in Haiti, Arthur believes the Haitian government should implement “a concerted programme to assist local farmers to produce more food for the domestic market.”

As he explained to IPS, the Platform to Advocate for Alternative Development (PAPDA), a grassroots organisation in Haiti, recommends that Haiti first address agrarian reform.

“The Haitian government can do a lot by itself if it relied more on the dynamism and creativity of the poor majority and less on the advice and directives from the international community and the reactionary private sector,” Arthur said.

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