To Market, To Market? – Sunday 5th September 2010

Posted on September 5, 2010

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For much of the summer our lawn was a fashionable shade of ‘Southgate Beige’ – and we were not alone; the past three months have been the driest on record in over eighty years across some parts of Britain. While taking a break in the countryside during the holidays, we rambled through fields of stunted maize and large patches of cracked earth where seed had failed to germinate. Although our lawns and gardens have now recovered, farmers are struggling with the effects of low yields; the consequences of which, say some analysts, will be felt by us all before the year is out.

The National Farmers Union reports that silage for winter feed is down by 50% and there are concerns that despite record crops of wheat globally, the Russian drought and wild fires will cause feed prices to rise further. 20% of all animal feed used in this country is imported from outside the EU and high costs of imports, combined with a shortage of supply here, may force some livestock farmers to send animals to market early, with a knock on effect on the price of goods such as milk, cheese, chicken, beef and pork. While these immediate problems are a concern to farmers, there may be more trouble on the horizon; a lack of soil moisture is likely to have an impact on next year’s harvest.

Hearing stories like these reminds us how reliant we are upon complex, interdependent and globalised market systems for the very basics of life. As we begin the process of adjusting to new economic circumstances in this country, against a backdrop of what some may say is an ‘anti-wealth’ attitude in our media, I was interested to hear that those working in humanitarian relief are beginning to harness the power of local markets to help those in most need. Of course the ‘trade not aid’ debate is well known to us – and an initiative we support at Christ Church through Traidcraft. What is new however, is the more widespread application of this approach in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, when traditionally – and understandably – aid organisations have stepped in to replace local economic and governmental systems to sustain life; providing food, shelter and medical aid. As necessary as this is, there is a growing realisation amongst those working in the field, that the balance between humantiarian relief and the long term ‘development’ of a country is fragile – and that in the worst cases, the provision of ‘too much’ aid can have such a drastic effect on local populations that the poorest are driven from a state of vulnerability to one of destitution, through dependence.

I have spent the past week reading a thesis by the son of a friend of mine, who has just returned from Port-au-Prince. He spent two months in the Haitian capital shadowing a group of aid workers who were trialling a new ‘toolkit’ that is intended to help those on the ground understand and react to local markets, focussing their efforts so as to reduce the likelihood of ‘aid dependency’. Whilst the earthquake, which killed a quarter of a million people and affected three million others, took place over eight months ago, more than one million people are still living in makeshift tents – many in IDP (‘internally displaced persons’) camps, set up by international aid agencies. Over ninety per cent of the rubble in the capital city is yet to be removed.

As someone who puts money in a bucket at the back of the church and, to be honest, gives very little further thought to how it is used, it was enlightening to read about the complex ethical questions that aid workers have to resolve – often working with no protection, little support and with limited ‘rules of engagement’.

One of the reasons for the lack of permanent shelters in Haiti has been poor access across the mountain roads from the neighbouring Dominican Republic. Some of the more accessible routes are controlled by local ‘gangs’. Would aid be distributed more quickly by co-operating with these local groups, paying for safe passage along the mountain roads, rather than spending much more time – and money – repairing ports in the disaster affected area and shipping the timbers in?

Another factor hindering the reconstruction programme is the movement of people as a direct result of the provision of aid. Frequently families would move from camp to camp to benefit from better food aid or better healthcare – which is entirely understandable. But the situation is being  compounded by the fact that farm workers, from outlying districts that were unaffected by the earthquake, have begun to move into the IDP camps – where food and medical aid is being offered for free. This has had the effect of breaking down the social and economic structures that would ultimately help the country to rebuild. Would it be better to provide tools to the farmers and encourage them to continue their livelihoods, rather than to provide food parcels to the hungry?

Resolving questions like these is the purpose of this new ‘toolkit’ – to help focus disaster relief aid not only on meeting survival needs – but providing assets (like the farmer’s tools) to connect livelihoods to markets – and discourage dependency.

The success of this approach of ‘pro-poor development’ relies to a great extent on the conditions in a country before any disaster. Doubtless the current situation in Haiti is partly due to the fact that prior to the earthquake there had been a long history of corruption and inequality. Despite receiving £18bn in aid in the past two decades, 80% of the population lived on less than $2 a day. Even after the disaster this mindset seems to persist; a condition imposed on the aid workers, who are there at the request of the Haitian Government, is that they must be escorted at all times by accredited guides and driven around in cars hired (for a considerable sum) from the government. The thesis concluded that although there are risks to cash and incentive-based aid, these are outweighed by the benefits; the consequences of market failure having potentially catastrophic effects on a society.

As we start to feel the effects of volatility in the global wheat market, on the other side of the world aid workers are helping to re-create local market systems as part of the reconstruction of a devastated country. Havest time – whether in Hertfordshire or Haiti – is more complicated than I thought.

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