The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Oxfam article on Feed the Future in Haiti causes a stir in Washington DC

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“The farmers were asking very good questions, raising justifiable doubts and critiques.”

Storage bins delivered to a Feed the Future demonstration plot for farmers in Goyavier, Haiti.
Storage bins delivered to a Feed the Future demonstration plot for farmers in Goyavier, Haiti. Photo: Shiloh Strong / Oxfam America.

“It’s like they’ve brought us a plate of food and told everyone to take a bite. But we don’t know the food or how it was made.”

“But if we’re not going to eat it, we’re not going to have any more.”

Conversation between members of the Fédération des Agriculteurs pour le Développement de Goyavier [FAPDG, the Federation of Farmers for Development of Goyavier], Haiti

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Both inside and outside of Haiti, it’s widely known that humanitarian relief and development aid funding has not shown sufficient results for average Haitians. In fact, there was a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about aid to Haiti last week.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, those on the receiving end of aid share these same concerns. As the conversation above illustrates, getting aid right is complicated, with competing interests, priorities, and perspectives working at many levels—from the community to the international. But we’re all asking, “Despite the resources, expertise, and goodwill invested, why are stories of ineffective aid uncovered again and again?”

I traveled to Goyavier, Délugé, and Bois-Neuf, Haiti earlier this year to try to find out, meeting with farmers benefiting from the US government’s Feed the Future WINNER project in western Haiti. What resulted is a small story from a much larger picture of aid effectiveness that I wrote entitled “We are spectators no more,” which appears in Oxfam’s latest CloseUp magazine below (see pages 11-14).

CloseUp hits the mailbox of around 235,000 Oxfam members this week. As US citizens, these folks can let their representatives in Congress know if they think it is important to make reforms to the foreign aid system. But to whom do the intended recipients of US aid turn in places like Haiti?

“Too often we hear from local people that they have trouble getting donors, including USAID, to pay attention to their feedback and change their approach in response,” says Gregory Adams, Director of Aid Effectiveness about his team’s work in Haiti, which is featured in the article. “We wanted to see if we could get USAID and Chemonics to actually listen to these farmers’ ideas about how to make the project work better.”

A farmstead in Goyavier, Haiti. Photo: Shiloh Strong / Oxfam America
A farmstead in the mountains of Goyavier, Haiti. Photo: Shiloh Strong / Oxfam America

Because they had been working with USAID/Haiti during the feedback process described in the article, the Aid Effectiveness team at Oxfam America reached out last month to USAID/Haiti for a comment on a draft of the CloseUp story, which features a specific story about a delivery of storage bins to a farmers association in Goyavier by Chemonics, the for-profit contractor that is implementing the WINNER project. The draft of “We are spectators no more” made its way up the chain to Washington, DC, with Oxfam fielding calls from the State Department Office of the Special Haiti Coordinator. When citizens are conveying their side of the story, this clearly can have ripples throughout the layers of aid bureaucracy.

USAID then issued a written response to Oxfam on the specific story in Goyavier in late September, requesting that their version of events on the ground was included in the final version of the article. (See the statement from USAID published here.) Oxfam recognized this, yet stood by its responsibility to the farmers’ perspectives, which were clearly not adequately consulted within project-level decision-making that affected them. Despite USAID’s reference to “inaccuracies” in the story, it’s reliably and multiply sourced.

It was not surprising to Oxfam that differences in viewpoints between farmers, farmers association leaders, Chemonics, USAID and other stakeholders occurred, but these differences do not make one viewpoint “inaccurate” over another. Rather, USAID showed that they must be more deliberate and intentional about getting accurate information and representative feedback from people on the ground. Without this, development aid often becomes just a check-box system of delivery that disregards local priorities and local realities.

“The farmers were asking very good questions, raising justifiable doubts and critiques because they have directly experienced WINNER,” said Gilda Charles, Oxfam’s Aid Effectiveness Officer in Haiti who worked with our partner, the Haitian Advocacy Platform for Alternative Development (PAPDA).

“[Those receiving aid] have to understand that they have a right! That they have a right to ask questions, that they have a right to ask for reports, that they have a right to participate to ensure that the project priorities align with their needs!” explains Franck Saint Jean of PAPDA (standing), at the aid effectiveness training with farmers associations in Haiti in late 2012.
“[Those receiving aid] have to understand that they have a right! That they have a right to ask questions, to ask for reports, that they have a right to participate to ensure that the project priorities align with their needs,” explains Franck Saint Jean of PAPDA (standing), at the aid effectiveness training with farmers associations in Haiti in late 2012.
And these farmers associations were not the first to raise concerns about USAID’s and Chemonics’ practices in Haiti. There are various critical Inspector General reports regarding significant problems with USAID’s business loans, cash-for-work programs, shelter provision, and food aid programs in Haiti. Critical reports have also been made about USAID’s largest recipient of US aid contracts in the island nation and around the world—Chemonics.

“Oxfam and PAPDA’s initiative showed that farmers can provide critical feedback donors can address,” explained Omar Ortez, Senior Policy Advisor for Citizen Engagement at Oxfam. “At the end of the day, this was about relationships built and the need for institutional responses to legitimate concerns when they are raised.”

In my article, I ultimately wanted to portray to Oxfam’s members how important the interactions were to the farmers themselves, whose capacity and confidence was built during the process of providing feedback to USAID, Chemonics, and the Haitian government. What I found in Haiti in May were farmers who understood their role, were actively pushing back on the aid system, and who were shaping their own futures.

Pa gen anyen pou nou, san nou. Nothing for us, without us.

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Read the CloseUp article for yourself and find out why farmers are now saying, “We are spectators no more.”

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