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Cheryl Mills

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The Importance of Agriculture in Confronting Hunger, Poverty, and Unemployment in Haiti

Posted: 02/13/10 06:36 PM ET

The international community has collective commitment to stand with Haiti in this challenging time.

Both Haiti and hunger - in particular, assuring food security - have figured prominently in the United States foreign policy. Both illustrate the critical elevation and role of diplomacy and development that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have pursued since taking office more than a year ago. When the earthquake hit Haiti, President Obama ordered a swift, aggressive and coordinated response - and within 36 hours, Americans were on the ground in Haiti working tirelessly to save lives. Within the next hours, days and weeks, civilian and military men and women continued to arrive in Haiti to join the international community in offering emergency and humanitarian support.

Since this Administration came into office, at the request of Secretary Clinton, I have been working on our Haiti Policy and Feed the Future, our Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative. Despite my familiarity with these subjects and the possibilities that lie ahead, I am deeply saddened that the devastating earthquake in Haiti has prompted increased focus on their intersection.

The earthquake that shook Haiti on January 12, took lives and livelihoods, homes and hospitals, schools and businesses, and so much more. In addition to the incalculable human and physical losses, the earthquake threatened to rob Haiti of something more elusive -- a moment, a momentum -- what has been one of the more promising moments and positive momentum the country has enjoyed in many years. We cannot let that occur.

The relative calm that has marked the Préval Administration allowed for substantial gains in the overall physical security throughout the country. The international community responded with a donor conference in April 2009, with the naming of former President Clinton as the Special Envoy for the United Nations, and with a series of reinvigorated development plans from donors around the world.

The United States will not abandon those plans -- and urges others not to abandon their plans. Rather, we must redouble our commitment to work together with a single purpose, under a coordinated plan and under the leadership of Haiti. There is still hope in Haiti. There is still opportunity in Haiti. All you have to do is look into the eyes of the men, women and children whose resilience over the past months has inspired the world.

One of the main opportunities is the development of the agriculture sector. Work with the Government of Haiti, the United States and other international donors had identified investing in agriculture as a key mechanism to tackle poverty, the root cause of food insecurity and under-nutrition. Agriculture was affected by the earthquake -- roads and ports were destroyed and markets were and will continue to be disrupted -- but this damage can be readily repaired. Indeed, a large percent of the agriculture sector remains unaffected.

Since the earthquake struck, I have visited Haiti three times. During each of these visits, President Preval and Prime Minister Bellerive have underscored the enduring importance of agriculture. When asked last Friday what he would like to prioritize for donor investments, President Preval responded without hesitation: "infrastructure and agriculture."

Given the Government's stated goal of decentralizing the country, drawing people out of Port-au-Prince will require a robust peri-urban and rural agenda, for which agriculture must play a vital role. Bolstering employment and livelihoods in the agriculture sector, raise incomes, strengthen markets, and support the growth and purchase of nutritious food, we will enable and incentivize the long-term decentralization strategy.

There are real challenges that confront our efforts in agriculture: small farms; limited mechanization; low yields; soil erosion; limited access to agricultural inputs; scarce credit; high post-harvest losses; and poor or non-existent rural infrastructure.

The earthquake both mitigates and exacerbates these challenges. With the upcoming planting season, there will be a greater supply of farm laborers, but there may also be additional mouths to feed. The destruction of the ports means that trade has been disrupted but farmers may benefit from an increased demand for locally grown food. And though the donor community is committed to supporting Haiti with food aid, this aid must be properly targeted to avoid depressing food prices and hurting farmers.

Already, in this emergency-to-relief-to-recovery phase, the U.S. and other donors have joined together with the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture to fund important cash-for-work programs that are employing displaced people and others in rural areas outside Port-au-Prince. These workers are rehabilitating and restoring damaged agricultural infrastructure such as irrigation canals, farm-to-market roads, and vital watersheds so that they can withstand the seasonal rains and hurricanes. We are also planning to assist in providing resources for seed and fertilizer to ensure that farmers can capitalize on the planting season.

By giving people the opportunity to earn cash through productive jobs, we create the means for people to purchase what they need, stimulate the local economy and contribute to the country's long-term foundation for growth. And, by designing and implementing such programs in close cooperation with the Government of Haiti, we can help ensure that emergency efforts build local capacity rather than substitute for it. If we as donors do our job well, we can and should put ourselves out of business.

In July of last year, I had the pleasure of accompanying Haiti's Agriculture Minster, Minister Gue, on a visit to a farming community outside Port-au-Prince. In the months following this visit, a U.S.-Haitian team traveled the country between July and October, visiting farms, watersheds, markets and mills. In the end, they recommended a robust agriculture development strategy focused on three core elements: Grow More, Save More, Sell More. In the wake of the earthquake, some of Haiti's needs and priorities have changed. We will revise, not abandon, our prior commitments and goals.

As we revisit the pre-quake strategy, there are likely four new areas of investment in the agriculture sector: help rebuild the Ministry of Agriculture; increase coordination and information exchange; increase engagement with the Dominican Republic; and create jobs.

In Haiti, we have the chance to deliver something that the global community has long declared a priority: to transition from short-term interventions to addressing the underlying causes of hunger and poverty. The U.S. global hunger and food security initiative - Feed the Future - embraces this challenge, calling upon development partners to invest in country-led plans that provide a comprehensive approach to substantially and sustainably reduce hunger and poverty.

I do believe there is a bright future for Haiti. For a country of more than nine million endowed with valuable natural resources, a rich culture and history of empowerment and resilience, surrounded by peaceful and economically stable neighbors, I see every reason for optimism. If we all have the strength of but one Haitian, we will succeed.

The international community must be guided by the faith of the Haitians themselves that tomorrow will be better than today. We must seize the opportunity in agriculture in the midst this tragedy, acknowledging its renewed importance and the ability for international partners to help develop the agriculture economy. The U.S. stands ready for continued engagement with the Government of Haiti and our partners. We must get behind one plan, led by the Government of Haiti. Because as Secretary Clinton always says, "the future of Haiti, belongs to Haiti."


This weekend Cheryl Mills is attending meetings with international partners, including Minister Gue, to discuss the future of agriculture in Haiti. The meetings are being held at the headquarters of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization.

For more information, including how you can help, visit http://www.state.gov/haitiquake

To learn more about U.S. Government's work in Haiti since the earthquake read USAID Administrator Raj Shah's post. http://bit.ly/bmhdiV