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How food aid hurts developing economies

Published: Wednesday, July 10 2013 3:55 p.m. MDT

In this April 21, 2011 photo, a man carries five sacks of rice at the La Saline Market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Soaring food prices aren't new in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and heavily dependent on imports. In 2011, prices are on the rise again, mirroring global trends, and the cost of gasoline has doubled to $5 a gallon. Haitians are paying more for basic staples than much of Latin America and the Caribbean, an Associated Press survey finds.

Ramon Espinosa, Associated Press

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The 2010 earthquake in Haiti smashed buildings, killed thousands of people and decimated agriculture leaving 2.5 million Haitians with nothing to eat. But according aid workers, the disaster may also have fundamentally changed the way the developing world gets food.

"Decades of inexpensive imports — especially rice from the U.S. — punctuated with abundant aid in various crises have destroyed local agriculture and left [Haitians] unable to feed themselves," reported the Huffington Post. "After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, local rice farmers were put out of business when markets were flooded with cheap American rice, sold to help fund the recovery effort,"

A recent article in The Economist outlines the scope of the problem in Haiti:

"More than half the population lives on the land, but still the country ships in half its food and 80 percent of its rice. Diri Miami, as imported rice from the United States is locally known, has become a staple over the past 30 years. The imports are prevalent partly because, at 3 percent, Haiti’s import tariffs on food are among the lowest in the Caribbean. This, combined with generous subsidies to farmers in the United States, means that the rice is cheaper than locally produced food."

While aid workers have been critical of these policies for many years, world leaders have only recently admitted that trade barriers exacerbated hunger and reduced economic development in Haiti and elsewhere, according to the Huffington Post.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton — now a U.N. special envoy to Haiti — publicly apologized for championing policies in the mid 1990's that destroyed Haiti's rice production.

"It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake," Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee."I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else."

In a recent blog post for The Hill, Ed Royce (R-Calif.) 
and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) suggest a better way for Americans to help those impacted by environmental and political upheaval is buying food locally.

"Experience shows that buying food closer to its distribution point is faster, cheaper and helps save lives. In recent years, a small government pilot program has experimented with “local and regional purchase” efforts. The result? Aid that costs 25-50 percent less and is delivered 11 to 14 weeks faster than under the current system," they wrote.

But they acknowledge that reforming the system will be no small feat. It is "opposed by those with a stake in the current system, including some farmers — despite the fact that food aid accounts for less than 1 percent of total U.S. food exports."

mwhite@deseretnews.com

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