Why Haiti is fragile

Rosemene operates a small store outside her home in Mirebalais, Haiti. Photo: Laura Pohl / Bread for the World

By Todd Post

In March, my colleague Faustine Wabwire and I travelled to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, to do some on-the-ground research for the 2017 Hunger Report. The 2017 Hunger Report will be coming out in November 2016.

The report will focus on state fragility and its connections with hunger. Haiti fits right within that construct. The country is highly vulnerable to natural disasters and has a history of notoriously poor governance. These are two characteristics of fragility we’re focusing on in the report.

Of course most people know about the tragic earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010. Many countries are highly vulnerable to natural disasters, but countries that are poorly governed and have weak institutions suffer larger losses. For example, most deaths resulting from earthquakes occur in countries where the government does not enforce the building code standards necessary in earthquake zones. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed 200 times as many people as did another earthquake in Chile, which struck a few weeks later and was 500 times stronger, according to an article in Nature. The failure to enforce building codes was a major factor in the dramatically higher death toll in Haiti.

Governance also plays a critical role in disaster relief operations. The earthquake in Haiti illustrates one of the paradoxes of international development assistance. Theoretically, you would expect the national government to lead the coordination of the relief operations. But in fact, hardly any of the money raised for earthquake relief passed through the Haitian government. Why? Because donors don’t want to support the government in countries perceived as weakly governed — that is, ones they feel can’t be trusted to spend the money for its intended purpose using fair ways of distributing assistance.  

Yet part of the reason the government is so weak is that the country is poor and does not have the resources needed to build stronger institutions. The Haitian government can barely afford to pay the modest salaries of civil servants, for example, which affects those workers’ commitment to their jobs as well as the government’s ability to retain people who show a spark of promise. There are many other consequences of poverty that damage a government’s ability to build capacity. Weak governance leads to lack of donor assistance, which leads to weak governance — a vicious circle.

During our visit, Faustine and I were especially interested in learning about a program called Kore Lavi that is funded by USAID. The program targets “ultrapoor” households in the poorest areas of the country. The focus is maternal and child nutrition, specifically the 1,000-day period between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday. Haiti has the highest child mortality rate and one of the highest stunting rates in the hemisphere, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s 2015 Global Hunger Index. Kore Lavi provides pregnant and lactating women with nutrition education and a food basket that includes staples as well as vouchers to purchase locally-grown fruits and vegetables.

The vouchers for fresh produce are also an indirect support to nearby farmers. It is unfortunate that the program is not more integrated with agricultural development assistance. The poorest communities in developing countries are almost always based on agriculture. Hence their only real way out of poverty is agricultural development. Feed the Future, USAID’s signature global food security initiative, operates in Haiti, but is not aligned with Kore Lavi, nor do there appear to be plans to integrate the two programs. But integration would strengthen both programs, which target some of the same people and have objectives that reinforce each other.

The “silos” of Kore Lavi and Feed the Future are not unusual. Few agricultural interventions are coordinated or integrated with safety net programs such as Kore Lavi. That seems strange, I know. There are examples of the proven benefits of integrating the two types of programs. One is in Ethiopia, where households that participated in a safety net program and also received complementary agricultural support were more likely to be food secure than those who were beneficiaries of the safety net alone.

The lack of integration within USAID-funded programs could be seen as a microcosm of weak governance’s driving a wedge between the Haitian government and donors. It’s not of the same magnitude, but it is a governance issue that the U.S. government has the power to resolve.

Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor at Bread for the World Institute.

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