“Come get the first of the storage bins.”
With this message, Joseph Fleurisca Racine (pictured below, left) was among the people summoned from a group of small farmers’ associations in Haiti’s Artibonite region earlier this year. These storage bins, funded by the US government’s Feed the Future initiative, were supposed to help farmers get their beans to the market at the right time to earn better prices.
But Racine and his fellow farmers now had a problem.
Just how were the farmers going to get these bins from the town of Montrouis up the steep and rough mountain road to where they lived? The grain storage bins were too big to fit onto the back of a motorcycle and, from the point of view of some farmers, too big to be useful. A truck would be too expensive to rent, and anyway, many of the paths to farmers’ plots were not passable by truck.
So members of the association, the Federation of Farmers for the Development of Goyavier, or FAPDG, paid to disassemble and reassemble the 15 bins to transport them up the treacherous mountain road. It cost them roughly $50 for each bin—an amount equal to 20 percent of average rural Haitians’ annual income.
A couple of weeks later, Chemonics, the for-profit contractor hired by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to implement the Feed the Future project in western Haiti, called FAPDG to request that its members pick up the second allotment of 16 more bins. The farmers’ association, not surprisingly, refused. After what FAPDG went through to get the first lot of bins, they demanded that Chemonics transport the bins itself.
In the end, Chemonics—which received $128,033,860 to implement the project and is the largest recipient of USAID contracts in Haiti and around the world—obliged. It hired a truck and delivered the remaining 16 bins to the demonstration plot.
Last month, in a statement about the situation, USAID defended it practices.
“The distribution of the bins to FAPDG was carried out according to the grant agreement,” wrote USAID in its response. “FAPDG was supposed to ensure transportation of the bins to its headquarter in Goyavier, as part of the cost-share or contribution from the federation. …The bins the project provided have met the needs and expectations of the federation, in fact additional bins have been requested to meet their total need.”
But that’s not how some of the farmers see it.
“The decisions clearly weren’t made in the association …,” says Racine.
How does goodwill go so awry? And how can farmers be better heard? Part of Oxfam’s ongoing advocacy work is to try to answer questions like these. Our goal is to make the entirety of the US government’s poverty-reducing international aid more effective by ensuring it is led and designed by the people who need it most. In May, as part of Oxfam’s aid effectiveness team, I traveled to Haiti to visit with farmers and ask these questions directly.
The complexities of aid
Doesn’t it make sense that Haitian farmers need a place to store their crops before they can get them to market, so that the crops don’t spoil or have to be sold to speculators?
On paper it does. The five-year project called WINNER (the Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environment Resources, also known as Feed the Future West) in Artibonite is part of President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, a $3.5 billion commitment toward agricultural development that came in reaction to the global food crisis of 2008–2009. WINNER aims to improve farmers’ access to technology and agricultural inputs, reduce their transportation costs, improve access to market information, and reduce postharvest losses.
In reality, Racine can tell you that, despite good intentions, all of this is not so easy. When I traversed the road up to Goyavier, I met with Racine and about 20 members of FAPDG who recounted the story of the bins. They were also concerned that the still-unused bins—each with a capacity of 1.4 metric tons—were too big to be practical for the farmers at their current rate of production, and they wondered how the bins would be shared among FAPDG’s membership.
As I listened to the farmers that day, it became clear that FAPDG needed to improve communication among its members. It was also clear that, for US aid to do all that it’s capable of, everyone—from farmers in their fields to officials at their desks in Washington—must have a way to provide and share feedback on aid projects, knowing that their opinions will count.
That is what Oxfam set out to explore—and has begun to answer—with its partner, the Haitian Advocacy Platform for Alternative Development, or PAPDA. Its mission was to assess the effectiveness of the WINNER project in three communities in the Artibonite River Valley: Goyavier, Délugé, and Bois-Neuf.
Multiple times I heard Franck Saint Jean, PAPDA’s aid effectiveness program coordinator (pictured, upper right), reiterate to the farmers, “You are depending on yourself. They’re not doing you a favor. It’s how the [aid] is given to you that’s going to determine if your independence is built.”
Preparing farmers’ feedback
PAPDA started by working with 48 leaders of local farmers late last year. Using international principles of aid effectiveness to make its assessment, the initiative also gave farmers an opportunity to understand their rights and responsibilities in the development process and to influence how decisions about international aid are made.
“US foreign aid can be a really useful tool for helping Haiti farmers grow more food and earn more income. But only if the people providing the aid are taking the time to listen to what those farmers need, then change their approach to respond,” explains Gregory Adams, director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam.
Frequently, it seems, large development projects become a check box system of delivery that disregards local concerns and the perspectives of those at the receiving end. International public and private funders disbursed a total of $9 billion in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. Some have called it a “gold rush” for private contractors and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), raising questions about who really benefits from all this money.
“Too often, donors fail to give the recipients of aid enough control over how aid projects are designed and evaluated. But who better than farmers themselves to tell the US government if their Feed the Future initiatives are helping or not?” asks Adams.
“PAPDA came to find out what the WINNER project is supposed to do. If the USAID had done the same, all these problems could have been avoided,” adds Racine, comparing the feedback process with the storage bin debacle in Goyavier.
PAPDA’S research produced some clear results: the farmers saw an obvious need for WINNER to improve its consultation methods, transparency, and accountability.
The organization’s research also pointed to one important area where USAID had done well: USAID had liaised with the Haitian government, so USAID recognized that all parties were focused on the same, shared goal of increasing farmers’ production. It was a good place from which to begin a dialogue. Oxfam’s role was to emphasize how feedback from aid recipients can make development programs work better and provide funding for the initiative.
The push and pull of feedback
In Feburary, PAPDA hosted a town hall meeting in St. Marc to share the farmers’ feedback on the effectiveness of the WINNER project in Goyavier, Délugé, and Bois-Neuf. USAID, Chemonics, the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture, Oxfam, local civil society representatives, and the media were all in attendance, along with 118 farmers.
USAID and Chemonics presented the breadth of the WINNER project and the results achieved so far, noting that the project overall has increased the output of nearly 15,000 farmers in western Haiti, generating more than $7 million in income. They also questioned the validity of PAPDA and the farmers’ associations’ findings since the research covered just 2 percent of the project beneficiaries. They raised these concerns again in March, when representatives of PAPDA and the farmers associations attended a Capitol Hill briefing in Washington hosted by Oxfam.
But Pierre Harmony, a representative of the farmers’ associations who attended that briefing, dismissed the concerns as technicalities that did not register with his reality.
“A professor showed a document telling what WINNER had done, but it meant nothing to me. I’m the one who can tell you the results,” he said when I met with him in May. “The presentation might be great, but they haven’t accomplished anything for farmers.”
USAID staffers in Haiti have an interest in engaging with farmers and in minimizing the potential risk if “bad press” were to reach Congress, where aid programs are often on the chopping block, even though they represent less than 1 percent of the US federal budget.
“The farmers acknowledged that in no way were they trying to bring the project down or make a general assessment of USAID, or even all the WINNER project,” said Omar Ortez, Oxfam’s senior policy adviser for citizen engagement, who attended both the town hall meeting and the Congressional briefing. “What they were saying is, ‘This is feedback from our direct experience of the project. Here it is. Let’s talk about it.’”
These farmers were not the first to raise concerns about USAID’s and Chemonics’ practices in Haiti, about which there are various unfavorable US Office of the Inspector General reports. Critics say the documented mistakes in Haiti are emblematic of those that occur frequently in other places, which is why Oxfam continues to engage the US government on these issues.
At the end of the day, the dialogue with farmers in Artibonite was fruitful. Even with USAID’s own extensive monitoring and external review system in place, USAID questioned why the feedback was coming to PAPDA and not to USAID. So USAID asked PAPDA and Oxfam to sit at the planning table for its next Feed the Future project in northern Haiti and to discuss how USAID can strengthen farmers’ associations in the future. PAPDA will also continue to develop its data-gathering skills to make aid projects more transparent in Haiti, and Oxfam is looking at the effectiveness of the WINNER project in other sites in Haiti.
Farmers find their voice
In May the farmers told me not much has changed—yet—in terms of improving aid delivery. But PAPDA’s work had accomplished something perhaps even more important. As I talked with them, I realized these farmers no longer saw themselves merely as spectators to the aid flowing into their community. What made a difference to them wasn’t the opportunity to register their complaints about the project. Rather, PAPDA’s work had strengthened these citizens’ ability and resolve to engage with power structures—be they international aid donors or the Haitian government—to influence the direction of aid in the future.
Racine in Goyavier described it in tangible terms: “We have a glimpse of what to do next, when another NGO comes. People have to come with a written document of what the project will look like to see if it’s what we need. We can offer alternatives and contribute our own resources … and we can ask for translation into Kreyòl!”
When it comes to international aid, people have a right to weigh in on decisions made in their name. My time in Haiti reminded me that making aid more effective is certainly a long and winding road, with change at every level necessary.
Though I heard farmers debate about how much criticism of aid is acceptable, I also heard the following during the farmers’ meeting in Bois-Neuf:
“We have opened our eyes. I want the whole country’s eyes to be opened on this issue [of aid effectiveness].”
For more on Oxfam's perspective on this story, see "Oxfam article on Feed the Future in Haiti causes a stir in Washington DC" on the Politics of Poverty blog.
Read more from our Fall 2013 edition of CloseUp here.