A few weeks ago I had the honor of delivering Fordham University’s Fall 2013 Gannon Lecture. The venue was the United Nations, and the talk was titled, “The Haiti Experiment: Development Breakthroughs That Could Change the World.” You can listen to it from an audio link and check out photos of the evening.
The lecture began with an exposition of three development failures I encountered in Haiti, but which affect the whole of the developing world: devastating loss of tree cover, the intentional collapse of domestic agriculture, and the near-total bankruptcy of foreign aid.
Combating these failures led to the three development breakthroughs that represent the substance of my work in Haiti, along with that of my colleague Timote Georges. These breakthroughs were the main thrust of my remarks to the distinguished audience gathered at the UN, and which I am summarizing here.
Timote and I have been successful in helping to transform 2,000 smallholder farmers in Haiti into an independent and self-financing business. After three years of external funding and technical training, the resulting organic agroforestry cooperative near the northern city of Gonaives is now owned and managed by the farmers themselves. They plant one million trees a year, their crop yields have increased as much as 40 to 50 percent, depending on the crop, and their overall household income has increased an average of 30 percent.
Through our organization, the Smallholder Farmers Alliance (SFA), we have begun work on a second cooperative. Our goal is to launch a new cooperative every six months, with each receiving external funding and training for three years before becoming independent, farmer-owned businesses.
Almost a third of the global population lives and works on some 500 million smallholder farms throughout the developing world. The vast majority of these farmers have been abandoned and left without any support for the past 50 years, like their counterparts in Haiti. But we feel the business model we have developed has the potential to unleash a worldwide army of smallholder farmers who can make a significant contribution to planting trees and increasing organic food production.
EXIT STRATEGY AID
Haiti and other developing nations are littered with the myriad carcasses of dead projects that collapsed as soon as the funding stopped.
With the encouragement of our corporate sponsor, the Timberland company, we were forced to figure out how to prevent SFA from following the same path. The result is a deceptively simple concept called “exit strategy aid” that begins with designing your exit from day one of any development activity, and doing so in such a way that the activities continue and are self-financing after your departure from the scene.
This form of disciplined sustainability, where success is measured only in the years after external funding and oversight have stopped, could have significant impact if applied to other parts of the developing world.
REDUCE TO IMPROVE
The scale of wasted foreign aid in Haiti is almost beyond comprehension. In the 29 months following the January, 2010 earthquake, it took $13 billion to pay for both the recovery efforts and the running of the country; all but about 10 percent of this was foreign aid, both public and private. That works out to around $15 million a day, seven days a week, over that period. And nobody is able to explain where all that money went, least of all the foreign governments that insisted on administering it directly without only minimal involvement of the Government of Haiti.
Our work with small-scale farmers has shown that effective development solutions are often much simpler and more community-based than previously thought. These solutions also do not require as much money, particularly if you take out the unnecessary layers of foreign-government-designed bureaucracy and apply the exit strategy aid concept.
This experience led to suggesting that we could cut foreign aid by a third worldwide and still vastly increase its overall impact. This savings alone would help to build global public support for aid reform.