On the Ground in Haiti with Ian Schwab

Late last week, NPR released a heart-wrenching report about how foreign aid is hurting rice farmers in Haiti. And this past Tuesday, another NPR report revealed how Haiti’s rice market is a mess and how farmers’ children are going hungry. Since the earthquake, free rice from foreign aid groups has made it harder for Haitian farmers to sell what they grow. And even before the earthquake, these farmers had a hard time competing with foreign rice produced with high-output, modern farming techniques that aren’t available in Haiti.

AJWS’s Associate Director of Advocacy, Ian Schwab, recently returned from Haiti and shares his insights about life on the ground, the road to recovery and why local food production is the key to rebuilding Haiti’s future.


Well first of all, when you get off the plane and you walk into Port-au-Prince, the reality that you’re confronted with is very different than the reality that I expected from media reports. Combined with the devastation and the camps that are throughout Port-au-Prince, what you’re also struck by is that there is an amazing resiliency and functionality to society—there are markets, there are people, kids waiting in their school uniforms to go to school, there’s more traffic than you can ever imagine, some of it is international. In other words, there’s a level of functioning, a level of functionality, to a city that is quite amazing and surprising on some level. I think that it doesn’t get reported enough. And the reason that I think it’s so important is because I think we need to be leveraging the ability for the Haitian people to figure out ways to cope and to function and to have markets as opposed to going with the idea that there is only despair. And I think that that was something that struck me initially.

The food situation, for example, in Port-au-Prince is not one of scarcity; it’s not per se that there’s nowhere to buy food. There are actually lots of markets and people selling food all over the city. The problem is that even before the earthquake there was limited livelihood opportunities, and now, with many people losing so much, there’s a real financial issue, that people don’t have access to funds. And therefore, some of the food issues are simply relating to somebody needing a job. And so I think that there’s great opportunity, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in Port-au-Prince, in terms of rebuilding the city and hopefully that will go to the Haitian people and will be done by, where at all possible, by Haitian firms and by Haitian workers.

And there’s a need for there to be long-term livelihood and development moving forward so we don’t end up in a cycle of aid. Nobody wants to see a cycle of aid, and most people are actually becoming impatient with the way that the aid structure has been. And what they want is not handouts, per se, although in certain cases obviously there’s a real need for aid. But what people are looking for is opportunities for the long-term and real development.

A lot of the great information that I got about agriculture and ag-development came from [American Jewish World Service’s] country director Cantave [Jean-Baptiste] who’s an agronomist and is connected to the different farmer and peasant movements in rural Haiti. One of the things that he pointed to, which I think is something of a metaphor for a lot of the international response in Haiti, is that he looked at what’s called the PDNA, the post-disaster needs assessment that was done for Haiti. And when he looked at the agriculture section, he saw a section on fertilizer and machinery and seeds and these types of issues, but what was missing was, ‘where are the farmers, where is the land?’ and I think that it’s important that we invest in local, agricultural communities in areas outside of Port-au-Prince. But it’s also important that this investment in development opportunities are what the farmers and the people of that community want, and we have seen, in regards to some of these that have come in, a disconnect between what the local community feels that they need, and the aid that’s being provided. For example, he had thought that if he had polled local farmers, they would probably have pointed to roads, infrastructure and irrigation systems as opposed to, for example, new seed varieties because farmers are traditionally risk-averse. So, they know how to use local seeds that they’ve developed, they are much more resistant to local conditions, and don’t want to use, even if the seed has a higher production potential, they are much more interested in using the seeds that they’ve developed. That’s not what their priority would be, their priority might be access to the market, or to the road, or to irrigation.

So, I think that there’s some metaphor regarding some of the larger issues regarding Haiti’s reconstruction, in terms of ensuring that the assistance that the international community is providing is in line with the assistance that the Haitian communities want.