President Clinton apologized on March 10 for the role that his government played in destroying a big part of Haitian agriculture: "It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked . . . I have to live every day with the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti, to feed those people, because of what I did."
Beginning in the 1980s, subsidized U.S. rice wiped out thousands of Haitian rice farmers and made the country dependent on imported food.
Clinton's apology is important and presents an opportunity to change U.S. policy towards Haiti, which has been a major cause of suffering in this desperately poor country.
Most urgently, the current relief effort has to be ramped up immediately to help the 1.3 million homeless Haitians before thousands are killed by rains or the hurricane season. A relatively brief rain on March 19 brought images of Haitians struggling through mud in squalid camps to try and keep from being overwhelmed by flooding.
The rainy season is just beginning and it will get much worse, especially for some 200,000 homeless in 29 camps that could get washed away when the rains get heavy.
Danny Glover is an actor and chair of the board of the TransAfrica Forum. Both he and TransAfrica have worked to help Haiti for many years. "It doesn't make sense that they can't even get people tents two and a half months after the earthquake," he told me in Washington. Indeed it does not: The needed tents cost about $100 apiece; even if we double the government's request for 200,000 tents, the cost is $40 million, not even two percent of the public and private donations coming from the U.S. and other countries.
Congress needs to turn up the heat by immediately announcing that it will fulfill its oversight role, complete with hearings and a report on how U.S. dollars - taxpayer and private donations - have been spent in Haiti. This would give some incentive to the larger organizations and U.S. government contractors to help save thousands of Haitian before they are killed by rains or the hurricane season (which begins in June).
Chemonics, which has received multiple contracts totaling tens of millions of dollars from USAID, is a subsidiary of ERLY Industries, which is also the parent company of American Rice Corporation, a major beneficiary of the policies that Clinton apologized for.
The American Red Cross has received an estimated one-third of the billion dollars that American relief organizations have raised for Haiti. It has had some scandals in recent years involving the receipt of some hundred of millions of dollars of funds that were not spent on the particular relief efforts for which they were raised.
The most urgent needs are clear: in addition to the necessary shelter and relocations, there needs to be more aid provided outside Port-au-Prince so that people are more able to live elsewhere. More aid to agriculture for the current planting season is also urgent. The international community, which is currently providing most of Haiti's food, should commit to buying at least the current and next season's crop of locally produced rice at a profitable, guaranteed price, before distributing any imported rice. Currently, as has happened in the past, imported rice is pushing down the price of local rice and can make it difficult or impossible for farmers to survive.
The Haitian government also needs budget support; it is currently getting only a tiny fraction of U.S. government dollars, not nearly enough to even have a functioning government that is necessary for the reconstruction effort. It is both wrong and counter-productive to try to exclude Haitians from having a voice in the future of their own country.
This column was distributed by McClatchy Tribune Information Services on March 24, 2010