An aid project in Haiti brokered by U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton is having unfortunate and unintended consequences, according to new research from a Western University scholar that questions the merits of wealthy countries' economic interventions in the developing world.

Recent PhD graduate Marylynn Steckley spent nearly six years with her young family living in Haiti, both as an aid worker and as a researcher.

"I'm now struggling to see what the good ways of helping are," Steckley says. "Wealthy nations continue to cause disaster, poverty in Haiti. And the path to understanding is looking at how we contribute to that destruction."

Haiti is ranked the most food-insecure country in the Western Hemisphere.

In the wake of the 2010 earthquake that claimed the lives of up to 300,000 people, more than $10 billion was pledged by the international community. Of that, only about $4 billion has been allocated, but not all of it spent.

And of the money that was allocated toward economic development, Steckley says, it tends to benefit the giver more than the receiver.

Celebrity-studded launch

She cites the Caracol Industrial Park, on Haiti's northern coast, as a prime example.

In 2012, then U.S. secretary of State Hillary Clinton — along with Bill Clinton, who was the UN special envoy to Haiti — oversaw the official opening of Caracol. The industrial park was financed by $224 million US in subsidies from mostly American partners. The factory zone was estimated to provide upward of 60,000 jobs. The biggest employer at the park is Sae-A, a Korean clothing manufacturer that supplies major U.S. retailers like Walmart, the Gap and Old Navy.

Clintons in Haiti for Caracol Industrial Park launch

The Clintons attend the opening ceremony for the Caracol Industrial Park, which also included fashion designer Donna Karan and actors Sean Penn and Ben Stiller. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

"What is happening here in Caracol is already having ripple effects that will create jobs and opportunities far beyond this industrial park," Hillary Clinton said at the opening ceremony, which included film stars Sean Penn and Ben Stiller among its guests.

But in the post-earthquake urgency to get the industrial park open, 450 farmers who relied on the land for subsistence had to be removed from their fertile plots. Some were only given five days' notice before the bulldozers moved in to clear the land on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake.

"It is one of the most heart-wrenching stories you can hear," says Kysseline Chérestal, a Haitian-American lawyer who works for ActionAid, an organization working to end poverty and improve human rights. She and her team interviewed about 150 of the farmers since their displacement.

"I don't mean to be dramatic, but from the perspective of an individual life, it's a horrific situation."

For the full story, listen to Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell's documentary Just Trying To Help online or tonight at 9:05 (9:35 in N.L.) on CBC Radio's Ideas.  

Sae-A currently employs just over 5,000 factory workers — mostly women under age 30 — at minimum wage, which is roughly $5 US per day. Chérestal says a living wage that would provide three square meals a day in Haiti would be at least double that.

The entire Caracol Industrial Park currently employs 5,500 people — far short of the original goal.

"People take these jobs because there are no other options," says Chérestal, who points out that many employees don't last more than a year or two. Some of the women she spoke to took the job out of desperation.

"This is not a job to lift themselves out of poverty. It's just a job that is allowing them to survive right now."

'Listen to what they want'

Steckley and Prof. Yasmine Shamsie of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., co-authored a paper earlier this year in the academic journal Third World Quarterly analyzing the failures of Caracol.

While Shamsie says wealthier nations have an obligation to support Haitian efforts to improve food security, she believes Haiti's more powerful neighbours are often too eager to intervene to the detriment of those the aid is supposed to be helping.

Marylynn Steckley, researcher on development efforts in Haiti

'Wealthy nations continue to cause disaster, poverty in Haiti,' researcher Marylynn Steckley says. (Josh Steckley)

"The best way to help someone is to listen to what they want," Shamsie says. "In Haiti, a little less help would be useful."

"Caracol is a prime example of bad help," Steckley says. "The interests of the market, the interest of foreigners are prioritized over the majority of people who are impoverished in Haiti. The idea is that Haitian employees continue to make very minimum wages that barely provide for their subsistence while foreign companies extract the profits from their labour."

The Clinton Foundation did not respond to interview requests, but Sae-A provided a written statement stating that "thousands of people who have never been employed [now] have a job" and the company hopes to double its workforce in Caracol within the next year.

Food sovereignty

Steckley's research in Haiti was inspired by Haitian activist Harry Nicolas, who for decades has promoted local food production in the country as a solution to food insecurity.

"We need to resolve our own problems," Nicolas says. "I would one day like to see a Haitian give aid to a foreigner."

Harry Nicholas in Port au Prince

Harry Nicholas, seen at a market in Port au Prince, is devoted to supporting local food production in Haiti, which relies on imports for 60 per cent of its consumption. (Josh Steckley)

Nicolas gets his message out through music and through his popular TV advertisements.

Haiti now relies on food imports for 60 per cent of food consumption, including as much as 80 percent of all rice. Decades of farmland being used for mass export monocrops like sugar, mangos and coffee leave less land for smaller scale self-sustenance farming.  

And there is a domino effect triggered by import-dependence, Nicolas says.

"Haiti is a small country that doesn't have a responsible state that can control what comes in. So we are all exposed to whatever comes in, and it's foreigners making money. And imported food discourages Haitians from planting."

Listen to the documentary Just Trying To Help for the full story, either here online or tonight on CBC Radio's Ideas starting at 9:05 p.m. (9:35 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador).