American Food Aid: Disruption and Development in Haiti

Americans see themselves as a force for good in the world; many believe that richer nations like our own should help spread our material wealth with those in need, and provide stability to those whose lives are in turmoil. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Food for Peace program, a branch of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and a key American foreign aid presence in the developing world, President George W. Bush noted that “America has a special calling to come to [poor countries’] aid and we will do so with the compassion and generosity that have always defined the United States.” (USAID 2004: 2) Crossing political party lines, bureaucratic missions, and program designs, a “combination of American compassion together with the unmatched efficiency of our nation’s farmers” makes USAID one of the largest and most well-respected foreign aid providers in the world. (USAID 2004: 3) Shipments of surplus grain sent from the Midwest to the refugee camps and slums of Asia, Latin America, and Africa fill bellies but do little to address the root causes of why people need food aid in the fist place. Food deliveries and aid programs can continue for months, even years, before interest wanes and shipments are cut. Food aid, as part of a larger system of development projects, is meant to improve the lives of people in the Third World, but ends up creating as many problems as it was supposed to solve.

The issue of American foreign aid as a means to help impoverished people across the world seems like a Band-Aid on a bullet wound of systemic insecurity, not a temporary situation. My thesis is conceptually and methodologically situated at this critical intersection, asking “Why does American food and development aid fail to meet the critical needs of the people it is designed to serve, and why are the impacts abroad so damaging?” From this central point of inquiry, my research investigates the delicate balance and debate of dependency and assistance, using Haiti as a case study to illustrate these problems: who in the United States decides what approach would be best to solve the crisis of food insecurity in developing areas? What factors affect who receives food aid and how it is delivered? How do the realities and activities of social life change in response to an influx of foreign food aid? Are local economies supplemented and bolstered up by an influx of food staples, or are they undermined by the loss of an active and productive market? In this thesis, my goal is to show how food aid from the United States and its citizens changes vulnerable communities worldwide and in particular modifies Haitian politics, agriculture, and social relations. By exploring these themes, I aim to bring light to the inefficiencies of our current system of foreign aid, particularly in terms of delivery modes, domestic policies, and program structures, and offer suggestions that can better serve developing communities to enable them to take back control of their own subsistence, agricultural economies, and national security issues.

When it comes to international food aid, the United States government and associated development agencies have had mixed reception, and indeed mixed results, in their quest to alleviate suffering and starvation in the Third World. American food aid is part of an intense domestic debate that takes place in a country that both prides itself on its humanitarian spirit and is also one of the most active militaries in foreign interventions. When that aid finally reaches underdeveloped regions, its efficiency is highly dependent on local political stability, NGO involvement, and social structures to reach its stated goals. Even then, the long-term success of the program relies on continued US and international support, not just local and national acceptance. On multiple levels, larger and more impersonal actors were, and still are, at work, making policy decisions and designing relief programs that were based more on personal needs and visions than actual, effective food aid delivery systems.