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HAITI: Hunger Still Severe on Food Riots Anniversary

Amy Bracken

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Apr 20 2009 (IPS) - A year after riots over soaring food prices in Haiti made headlines around the world, conditions for many in this impoverished country have only worsened.

Protesters march through Port-au-Prince in April 2008 to demand the government lower the price of basic commodities.  Credit: Nick Whalen/IPS

Protesters march through Port-au-Prince in April 2008 to demand the government lower the price of basic commodities. Credit: Nick Whalen/IPS

Children are dying of malnutrition, and the nation’s agriculture, upon which most Haitians depend for their livelihoods and subsistence, has only partly recovered from the devastating storms that pummeled the country last fall.

The macroeconomics looks deceptively bright. Inflation has slowed in recent month to among the lowest levels in years. Prices of imported staple foods have been falling since September and more recently dipped below the levels of last April. But no one is celebrating in Haiti’s poor neighbourhoods.

This is evident at the hot food distribution center in the Delmas neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, where children and adults pack tightly into single-file lines with an urgent intent to pick up their plates of rice with meat sauce. The church-run programme, funded by the California-based What If Foundation, reports serving some 1,500 lunches every day. For many recipients, this is their only meal. The feeding has been going on for nine years, and coordinators here say they continue to see a rise in need.

On the northern edge of Port-au-Prince, in Cite Soleil, medical personnel at the St. Catherine Laboure hospital are seeing an ongoing rise in the number of children admitted for severe malnutrition, as well as a rise in malnutrition throughout the pediatric ward.

In late March, at the southern end of the city, in Martissant, a Doctors Without Borders hospital emergency room saw two separate cases from the remote southeastern community of Baie d’Orange. In each of the recent cases, a mother traveled with her young child for several hours, first by foot, then by public bus, to reach the medical facility. In one case it was too late. The two-year-old boy was already hypothermic and racked with lesions and infection by the time he arrived. He died soon after.

These are the extreme cases, but even a random survey of small produce merchants across the city elicits a refrain: The people have to buy high and sell higher, and few are buying. There’s often no profit.

Economist Kisner Pharel explains: “Prices can come down, but if people don’t have money in their pockets, they won’t feel it.”

The problem is that after food prices spiked and then stabilised last April, things got much worse before they got better. Imported food prices would increase even more, with rice and beans hitting a high in August. But instead of taking to the streets, Haitians hunkered down. Four major storms slammed the country in August and September, killing some 700 people and causing an estimated 1.0 billion dollars’ worth of damages (almost a tenth of the country’s meager GDP).

Seven months later, Haiti’s agriculture is still far from recovered. This winter’s yield was estimated at 20 percent below that of the previous year. In some areas, farmers have successfully started the spring growing season early, but many peasant families have no such hope.

Giant lakes left by the storms still linger on the edge of Gonaives, in the north, and Miragoane, in the south, forcing travelers into long detours from the one road in and out of town. Dozens of homes, farms and livelihoods remain under water.

Even where crops have begun to grow again, peasants continue to suffer from severe shortages. In Baie d’Orange, the community where 26 children reportedly died of malnutrition in a single month last fall, things are improving. Growers predict a good harvest this spring, but for now moderate and severe malnutrition clearly persist.

The difficulty of rebounding can also be explained in part by a study released last summer by the World Food Programme and Haiti’s National Centre for Food Security. The report describes survival strategies commonly used among the 2.8 million Haitians classified as food insecure. These include sale of animals, reduction of food intake, cutting down trees for charcoal production, consumption of unripe crops, and consumption of seeds – all desperate measures that can deaden any positive effects of falling prices or a growing economy.

“Some families are living on less than 50 cents a day,” says Pharel, a prominent Haitian radio commentator and consulting firm president. “We’re not talking about poverty. We’re talking about extreme, extreme poverty. Even if you get economic growth, it would be very difficult to keep these people out of poverty.”

One answer Pharel advocates is the introduction in Haiti of a programme like Mexico’s Oportunidades or Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, in which poor families receive financial aid on the condition that their children attend school and be vaccinated, thus, in theory, reducing hunger, increasing brainpower and improving public health, while stimulating the economy from the bottom up.

Pharel says he’s tired of the Haitian government asking for foreign aid. Yet he agrees with at least one point made by Haitian Prime Minister Michelle Pierre-Louis at this week’s donor conference in Washington: Haiti needs major infrastructural improvement to encourage investment, development and job creation.

Donors responded by pledging 324 million dollars for Haiti over the next two years – slightly over a third of what Pierre-Louis had requested. The U.S. pledged 57 million dollars, including 20 million dollars for infrastructure, 20 million dollars for debt relief, and 15 million dollars for food aid.

Hunger relief organisations had asked for aid for roads, to help access needy communities, as well as aid for food. But how much food aid Haiti will need this year rides largely on one nerve-wracking unknown, summed up by a WFP official as she concluded an interview before leaving the country last month: “I just pray they will not have another hurricane. Really.”

At a press conference during her brief visit to Port-au-Prince Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted the obvious (“We have no control over the weather”), but she pledged to march on: “Four hurricanes in one year were devastating. It would be enough for any country. It knocked Haiti off track, and we have to help Haiti get back on track.”

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