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Rice farmers, handouts, and the frustrating consequences of well-intentioned aid

By Brad Miller

As I flew in from Miami to Port-Au-Prince, something felt off.

Typically, World Next Door does not embed our writers in tourist locations. When I’m flying into a new host country, the plane is full of more locals returning home than foreigners like me coming to visit. But the Miami to Port-au-Prince flight was almost entirely full of Americans. And not only that. Every person I spoke with or overheard was traveling on behalf of a charity or NGO.

Two separate groups sported matching team shirts, a gaggle of grey-haired pastors fervently debated Haitian work ethic, and a sweet woman sitting next to me described visiting Haitian orphanages as “such a peaceful, relaxing thing to do.”

It didn’t bode well.

The reason I was nervous is that I had learned in my travels that donations, free aid, and unguided volunteerism often create dependence. I knew that helping blindly often does more harm than good. A flight full of Americans eager to fix Haiti and save the helpless locals was a bad omen.

Why? Why did I feel this was such a bad thing? How could so much help result in hurt?

Well, there’s a whole book on this subject, but Gami Ortiz, the Staff and Outreach Pastor at Nehemiah Vision Ministries, offered me a perfect example in Haiti.

Before the 2010 earthquake hit, Haiti grew a lot of rice. In fact, Haiti produced enough food to sustain itself and feed all of its people. But after the earthquake, aid began pouring in from all over the world. Medicine, shelter, and food. Free food.

Gami explained the inevitable consequences of this. “The local rice farmer can’t compete with free so nobody’s buying his rice. He goes out of business.” After the crisis is over, the Americans (having saved the day) move on, leaving ruined farms in their wake.

“The locals go back to doing business with the local farmer but he already went out of business – there isn’t any rice. We’re doing more harm than good without even realizing it.”

The result of all this? Before international aid, Haiti produced enough food for its people. As a result of all this “help” Haiti can no longer feed its citizens.

I had to marvel at the irony. America and Europe are often very defensive about their economies. They bemoan immigrants “stealing” their jobs, and pass legislation against cheap goods from China – they don’t want free items to ruin their economies.

But this is exactly what has been happening in Haiti. America has sent over wave after wave of volunteers to take Haitian jobs, and shipment after shipment of free goods that crash the local economy.

Luckily, there’s a solution. Gami spelled it out for me. It requires linking up with the locals.

Indigenous organizations (like Nehemiah Vision Ministries) work with the farmers and understand the local economy. Even in an emergency situation, when food distribution is necessary, NVM gives in the context of existing relationships, ensuring their work creates dignity, not dependency.

By supporting those who have been working in Haiti long before us and who will be working in Haiti long after us, we can be sure our donations are helping, not hurting.