Don’t Send Food to Haiti

  • Posted on: 31 December 2009
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

When people think of Haiti, they often think of hunger, and not without reason. Though there has been significant progress over the past year, hunger remains a pervasive problem.  Achieving food security is fundamental to nutrition, health, education, economic growth, stability and all the other issues we lump under “development.”  There are well intentioned groups, such as this one from Kansas, that often try to send packages of food to Haiti.  It might make one feel good, but in reality, it does little good. There is much that we can do to promote food security in Haiti, but it is up to us to ensure that our time, energy, and resources make an actual, and not just a perceived, difference.


Schools and community groups organize food drives for Haiti throughout the year.  There is usually an uptick in the number of groups that do so after a natural disaster.  In Haiti’s case, this usually means a sudden-onset disaster like a hurricane.  It is very frustrating for the professional organizations that respond to these disasters given that what they most need is cash. According to the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI), cash contributions allow professional relief agencies to purchase exactly what is needed for disaster victims.  Money is easy to transport and it doesn’t have to clear customs nor does it clog up ports.  People who live and work in Haiti understand how difficult getting goods in and out the country can be.  When food and other items can be purchased locally, it puts much needed cash into the economy.  All too often, crate after crate of food and other commodities sent into disaster affected countries undermine the local markets.    


Sending food in an ad-hoc manner does not promote food security, defined by the World Food Summit of 1996 as being when “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”  The three pillars of food security then are:


1) Food availability: sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis.


2) Food access: sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.


3) Food use: appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation.


No country, including the United States, is completely food secure.  The roots of food insecurity in Haiti have long roots that are historical, political, and demographic.  Presently, the vast majority of Haiti’s tree-cover has been cut down for cooking fuel. Most Haitian realize the environmental damage this causes, but a family has to eat.  Fom this, we see food security is related to energy.  With the trees gone, erosion has made the land less productive and more prone to crop destroyinh floods.  Food security is also related to agriculture and natural disasters. 


Without roads, it is difficult to get agricultural commodities, to regional markets where they can be sold.  Food security is influenced to a certain extent then by infrastructure.  It also depends on water, both for irrigation and for drinking.  Of course, it depends on livelihoods too.  When individuals have jobs, they have more purchasing power to buy the food staples their family needs.  Almost every Haitian with a job is supporting friends and family – that includes members of the Diaspora who send remittances every time they get a paycheck.  If the government can’t provide a safety net, then you rely on your friends and family. So who you know matters as well. 


What does a Haitian typically eat?  Rice, beans, corn, copious amounts of cooking oil, seasonal fruits and vegetables, fish if it can be caught, and meat from time to time if it can be bought. Dairy is too expensive for most although there are a number of small, innovative organizations trying to change this.  Another important factor is whether people buy their staples domestically or whether they are imported.  While I lived in Haiti for two and a half years, it is plausible that I did not have a single bowl of Haitian rice.  Haiti was once capable of meeting its own internal demand for rice, although now the markets have become flooded with (often heavily subsidized) rice from the United States, Japan, Argentina, Japan, and so on.  While buying imported rice helped Haitian families save money (a bit like how shopping at Wal-Mart instead of local stores helps Americans save money), it was one of the reasons (along with land disputes, outmigration from rural areas, erosion, and poorly thought out policies) that agricultural production has declined so dramatically in Haiti. 


As a result of rapid food cost inflation in early 2008, Haitians found themselves with the same amount of money but less purchasing power to buy imported food staples.  At a minimum, this produced frustration but, for the most vulnerable, it created desperation.  As a result of this (as well as some political maneuvering) riots took place in Port au Prince, Les Cayes, and elsewhere.  Trade influences food security.  It makes sense for Haiti to export certain cash crops such as the Mango Francique, Vanilla, Coffee, and Scotch Bonnet Peppers.  However, being overly dependent on the importation of food stables is a precarious existence these days.  This has to change. 


Governance matters.  To what extent is a government capable of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, who are invariably going to be women and children?  If the government lacks capacity to provide the services itself, can it coordinate the organizations that can by setting strategies, facilitating their work, resolving disputes, etc?  Haiti very much needs a green revolution.  What is the government's plan, how long it will take, what partners are needed, and what resources and expertise are needed internally and from the international community? Will a Haitian green revolution depend on chemical based fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified seeds, or will Haiti chart a different course? Important questions for another day.  


So what can an individual or group do to promote food security in Haiti?  First, educate yourself on the root causes of hunger in Haiti and worldwide.  This way you will know what causes to follow, when to write an op-ed in your local paper, when to make a phone call to your senator and/or representatives, etc.  Share what you’ve learned with friends, family, and community groups. Let others know there is hope for Haiti – that for all the challenges, things are changing and they can be a part of it. Encourage them to establish a long term relationship with an organization doing good work in Haiti - organizations that regard Haitians as equals, rather than as passive recipients of charitable goods.  


If you would like to make a donation to an organization that is promoting food security in Haiti, or if you would like to hold a fundraiser to that end, below is a list of organizations ranging from the very large to the very small that are having an impact in a variety of ways.  This is not to say there are not other organizations in Haiti that are not making a difference – just that you will not go wrong with the ones listed below.  To support them is to have an impact in Haiti. 


The World Food Program (WFP):  WFP is the world’s foremost provided of emergency food assistance.  It receives agricultural surplus from governments around the world and to a certain extent (and hopefully more in the future), it purchases food locally and regionally – allowing it to feed vulnerable populations while supporting agricultural economies.  WFP excels at identifying and assisting the most vulnerable and can respond to food needs rapidly. First, read about WFP’s work in Haiti.  Play the Free Rice game – every correct answer will fund ten grains of rice for the poor.  Consider making a short video about hunger for WFP.  Play the Food Force game which lets you experience WFP’s role in emergency response. Then place your photo on the Wall Against Hunger.  Encourage friends to do the same.


United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF):  UNICEF works closely with the Government of Haiti, other UN agencies, as well as international and local organizations to protect and assist children, including those who are malnourished.  UNICEF also plays an important role in organizing immunization campaigns, deworming children, and providing micronutrients such as Vitamin A to bolster their immune systems.  UNICEF has highly developed expertise in expanding access to water, sanitation, and hygiene. UNICEF also protects children by protecting their mothers.  For example, the agency provides training and equipment to health centers in order to prevent maternal mortality.  You can read more about UNICEF's important work in Haiti here.


Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment (ORE): ORE is an NGO devoted to increasing farmer income, promoting nutritionally enhanced food staples, and improving the environment through the widespread planting of commercial fruit trees.  The fruit trees are ideal for reforestation efforts as they will not be cut down, they are seen as having value. In addition, ORE has been promoting the planting and use of bamboo.


Floresta: Floresta is a faith based environmental organization that is devoted to promoting sustainable agriculture, reforestation, and soil conservation. Floresta has empowered local communities to plant over 200,000 trees and create over 2,000 compost piles.  Floresta also works with farmers in 35 villages to establish banking cooperatives with credit and savings systems, with nearly 1,000 participants.  Floresta is also active in the Dominican Republic and facilitates trans-border projects and exchanges.


Project Medishare: Project Medishare has worked with community groups, Partners in Health, the Haitian Ministry of Health, and other partners to establish teams of community health workers, a clinic, and a hospital in the province of Thomonde on the Central Plateau. Project Medishare is in the process of building a Medical Complex and Training Center for Childhood Nutrition.  Part of this complex will be a production facility which will manufacture and distribute akamil (AKA1000) which is a mix of locally grown cereals (rice, corn, millet, wheat) and vegetables (beans) blended into a powder.  It is highly nutritious, culturally appropriate, affordable, and can be made entirely with local ingredients.  Project Medishare intends to  distribute akamil in Thomonde before expanding to the entire Central Plateau.  In this way, the nutritional needs of vulnerable children can be met while building the regional economy, which is largely agricultural.  


Med and Foods for Kids (MFK):  MFK is a small health and nutrition oriented organization operating in Cap Haitian.  Like Project Medishare, MFK treats severely malnourished children with a locally produced therapeutic food called Medika Mamba (Medical Peanut Butter).  Is the Haitian answer to Plumpynut and has shown promising results. Using locally purchased peanuts builds the agricultural economy around Cap Haitian while meeting the nutritional needs of vulnerable children.


Fondwa University:  In 2004, the very ambitious Peasant Association of Fondwa (APF) came together to establish Haiti’s first (and only) rural university. Fondwa provides full scholarships to students in agriculture, livestock and other areas provided that graduates serve in a rural community upon completion of their education.  This grass-roots and service learning oriented approach will help to cultivate a new generation of community leaders in Haiti’s rural areas – where most Haitians live.  This is an institution deserving of expansion and replication.


Lambi Fund: The Lambi Fund’s mission is to promote democracy by developing Haiti's civil society.  In order to do that, Lambi Fund helps establish sustainable agricultural projects in rural areas, with an emphasis on small farmers, most of whom are women.  Lambi Fund also has constructed community cisterns and irrigation networks. In addition, Lambi Fund has established micro-credit initiatives as well as self-sufficient pig and goat breeding programs.  Finally, Lambi Fund holds organizational and leadership training for peasant groups and women’s groups.


Food security is complex, but there are many ways to make a difference through donating, educating, and advocating.  I encourage individuals and community groups to support food security efforts in Haiti, but to do it well.  Today is the last day of 2009 and I am looking forward to a year of continued progress for Haiti. Happy New Years to everyone and enjoy your pumpkin soup!


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