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How President Jovenel Moise’s “Change Caravan” could spark a sustainable solution to chronic malnutrition and poor health in Haiti.

The Moise administration has identified improving agriculture as a priority for his presidency. During his election campaign in 2016, Candidate Moise ran on a platform of putting Haiti’s natural and human resources – land, sun, and manpower – to good use. On May day 2017, the administration launched the “Change Caravan”, an initiative to begin focusing on improving the country’s agricultural sector. To date it is estimated that ~3.7 billion Haitian gourdes (approximately US $63.5 million) are being spent in the rice producing Artibonite Valley (200 million) and the southwestern region hit hardest by hurricane Matthew in October 2016 (3.5 billion), on curing and dredging long-neglected drains and irrigation canals; protecting flood-prone areas in villages and towns affected by periodic flooding; and fixing and creating new rural roads so farmers can get their produce to market, thereby increasing domestic production and improving food security. The Caravan is scheduled to touch every department of the country before the end of the president’s term in 2022.
Critics of the administration’s initiative have raised some important issues about its approach to planning and devising the implementation strategy. They include a lack of integration on the front end of local municipalities and farmers’ associations that are so crucial for success; a lack of commitment to sustainability and long-term follow-up; a lack of transparency in how funds are being disbursed and used; and a lack of a broader vision for the agricultural sector as a whole. The critiques are extremely important and addressing them fully is key to engaging the stakeholders who are critical to successfully implementing this initiative. If these issues are fully addressed, the Change Caravan could lay the ground for the sustainable solution Haiti desperately needs to build food security and combat chronic malnutrition and poor health for the benefits of its population.
Food insecurity is one of Haiti’s perennial and most important crises. Estimates dating well prior to the 2010 earthquake and the monstrous hurricane Matthew in 2016 showed that 60 percent of the population was undernourished and 30 percent of children suffered from chronic malnutrition. Over the past 30 years, Haiti’s agricultural production has consistently declined, resulting in a deficit where the demand for food vastly exceeds local production. As a result, it is estimated that Haiti imports more than 50% of its food including more than 75% of its rice – a mainstay in the local diet – even as agriculture is considered to be its primary economic activity.

The reasons for the decrease in food production in Haiti are complex including harmful and ill-informed trade liberalization practices in the 1980’s that flooded the Haitian market with low-cost rice from the Unites States and virtually destroyed Haiti’s rice production. It is also worth noting that timber was heavily harvested from the country’s forests to pay for the “compensation” required by France after Haiti fought for and won its independence in 1804. That “debt”, the equivalent of $20 billion, was not fully paid until 1947 and was a drain on the country’s land and economy. However, the problem has been further exacerbated by more recent deforestation and soil erosion due primarily to charcoal production and poor agricultural practices. Charcoal is Haiti’s most accessible source of energy and also one of the prominent sources of income for impoverished small holder rural farmers. Further, smallholder farmers are not only faced with dire environmental challenges, they also have little or no access to up-to-date tools, infrastructure, quality farm inputs, capital, training, and remunerable markets for their produce.

Barring the Preval administration’s efforts to support farmers in the Artibonite Valley with fertilizer and equipment during his second term (2006-2011), the past 50-60 years have been bereft of any sustained government or private investment in the sector. While the gains achieved through the Change Caravan will not by themselves cure what ails the country’s agriculture, they could provide short term relief to struggling farmers by helping to temporarily increase food production. Most importantly, if the efforts and gains are sustained, they have the potential to encourage much needed private investment in the sector; to give hope to small holder rural farmers long left to fend for themselves that the State is willing to help them; and finally, to lay the ground that could be built upon to restructure the agricultural system for maximum long-term impact.

Overhauling Haiti’s agriculture successfully however will require that we operate radically differently than how we have in the past. We must shift from a top-down approach to one that is driven primarily by farmers and local communities, building on their historical and traditional knowledge about agriculture and developing solutions that are adapted to their specific needs and therefore sustainable. Government must have real collaboration with local farmers associations, other community stakeholders, as well as the private sector. Together, they must adapt evidence-based scalable models for crop farming (i.e. rice, corn, sorghum,), agroforestry (coffee, cacao), as well as for livestock and aquaculture that can be tested to assess feasibility, adapted in key municipalities, and subsequently scaled-up regionally and nationally. It is now increasingly recognized that such community engagement is critical to creating a sense of ownership, more resilient communities, more efficient use of resources, more successful planning outcomes, and better sustainability in the long term.
Haiti should build a system that adapts the best evidence-based models from countries with similar economic profiles. Generally, these models have been demonstrated to be successful because:
They ensure farmers have long-term access to credit to purchase up-to-date tools and other agricultural infrastructure, quality inputs, and training.
The credit systems are managed by farmers’ cooperatives and can be funded from a variety of sources including the private sector, donors, and social investors.
They empower farmers and promote high-quality customer service and constant improvement to ensure that participating farmers have great harvests and repay their loans which can be continually re-invested to reach many more smallholder farmers.
Participants have access to crop insurance to protect them from the consequences of pests and unpredictable weather events. Crop insurance also incentivize credit lending by reducing the risk of farmers defaulting on their loans in the event of catastrophic losses.
They are environment-friendly, climate-smart, and embrace principles of gender equity.
They create direct links between farmers’ cooperatives and local and international markets, reducing the need for intermediaries and allowing producers to capture a higher share of prices.
Finally, farmers’ cooperatives have access to fair trade. Fair trade markets require buyers to pay sustainable prices to producers which must never fall lower than the market price, guaranteeing them a fair income. Fair trade buyers also pay a social premium in addition to the fair trade minimum price that the association of farmers can invest in social, environmental, and economic development projects to improve their community.
By creating an environment that promotes community and business involvement in agriculture and provides a solid reliable base for completely restructuring the sector, the Moise administration’s Change Caravan could help Haiti produce enough food to feed the country sustainably and spark a long-term solution to chronic malnutrition. Much beyond that however, this project could spur the kind of sustainable economic improvement that changes the social conditions of local farming families; allows them to live from their land in a dignified way; and fosters health equity, where they have the opportunity to attain their highest level of health.

Sandra Jean-Louis, MPA
Ms. Jean-Louis graduated from New York University Wagner School with a degree in Public Policy and Management. With over 20 years of professional experience, she currently facilitates impact collaboration in the areas of health equity and food security between communities, government, and the private sector.
jeanlouissandra@gmail.com

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