Haiti Food Security Update (4/17/2008)

  • Posted on: 17 April 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Needless to say, a lot has happened in Haiti over the last few weeks.  We saw food rioting in Port au Prince, Les Cayes, and Gonaives. Reuters has photos available here. Food insecurity and the rising cost of living were the primary (but probably not the only) factors.  These tensions have been building up for quite some time and it is frustrating that the government did not intervene sooner.  In the end, the Prime Minister was ousted and President Preval made an appeal to the international community for support.  Now is a good time to review both what the Haitian government has done in response and which donors have stepped up to offer their support during this difficult time.    


The Haitian government has primary responsibility for meeting the needs of its citizens, so let's start there.  We all know the  central government is weak but it is by no means helpless.  In reponse to the riots, Preval announced subsidies for rice. He did not make clear, however, how and when this would take effect.  Tension was created when people assumed the subsidies would take effect immediately.  People went to the stores and were upset when the bags of rice carried the same heavy price tag as before.  As many pointed out, it is not enough to subsidize just rice.  The cost of other staples must decline as well.  All Haitian staples (rice, beans, corn) are produced in Haiti meaning national production can be increased.  In the meantime several donors, recognizing how vulnerable Preval is right now, have offered their support.



Let's start with the United States, which is the largest provider food aid, providing more than $2.1 billion for 2.5 million metric tons of commodities to 78 developing countries in 2007.



The United States decided to release $200 million in emergency U.S. food assistance for global relief efforts and to help relieve political instability in some regions.  Indications are that the USG will provide Haiti with increased funds to subsidize rice.  Funds may be directed from other U.S. assistance programs to that end.  Other donors who have made Haiti a priority, such as Canada, will likely do the same.



Most U.S. food assistance is provided in the form of commodities (read: surplus).   Many, within and outside of the government, are pushing for the leeway to provide cash assistance to the World Food Programme (WFP) so that the agency can buy food on a country by country basis.  Why does this matter?  It would allow the WFP to purchase much greater quantities of food and to support national and regional economies (as opposed to the American economy) while doing so.   The Bush Administration has gone as far as to say that if restrictions on food aid are not lifted, food would be snatched from the mouths of millions.  It is not an exxageration.



Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been appealing to the U.S. Treasury for debt relief to Haiti.  It is worth noting that much of that debt was nor acquired under democratically elected leaders.  It is hardly fair that Haitians today should suffer for the sins of dictators who were propped up by outside forces decades ago.   According to Jesse Jackson: "We can't just look at the Haitian crisis, and people roaming the streets in desperation and political upheaval and shrug our shoulders and make this part of the bureaucratic rhythm and say this is the way life is...Life doesn't have to be this way. We are the number one agricultural producing system in the whole world, and here in our hemisphere is the most starvation."  I don't always find myself always agreeing with Jackson but he is absolutely right when he says life does not need to be this way.



A colleague informed me that the Jubilee Act passed the House this afternoon, 285 - 132.  Representative Hastings added an amendment to the bill, calling for complete and immediate cancellation of Haiti's debts passed unanimously by voice vote.
It is not final yet, but you can learn more by clicking  here. If passed, it would give Haiti more financial flexibility.  As the proverb says, "an overloaded donkey cannot stand up." 



The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has noted that this is truly an emergency - and will require both short term measures and long term measures to addresss.  In Haiti, the subsidies are the short term measures.  Boosting national production is the only long term solution.  



The World Bank has not been a good friend to Haiti throughout the years.  When it comes to support for food relief, it may yet be.  The Bank has been out in front warning of the consequences of increasing food insecurity thoughout the world. According to its Director Robert Zoellick,  "Food policy needs to gain the attention of the highest political levels, because no one country or group can meet these interconnected challenges."



According to the Bank, from early 2006 to early 2008 global wheat prices have risen at least 180 percent and have now risen more since then.  This is frightening.  What is an inconvenience for you and I is resulting in skipped meals, increased malnutrition, poor health, children dropping out of school, and political instability throughout the world.  Regardless of politics or beliefs, this is not in anyone's interest.  



Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn echoed Zoellick that rising global food prices will undermine gains in reducing poverty.  Perversely, it is in the poorest countries that families spend most of their household incomes on food.  The World Bank expects food prices to stay relatively high through 2015.  This is a problem that is not going away anytime soon.  If we do not address it, it will remain our "new normal." 


Zoellick said  "We estimate that the effect of this food crisis on poverty reduction worldwide is on the order of seven lost years...We can't be satisfied with studies and paper and talk. This is about recognizing a growing emergency, acting. ... The world can do this. We can do this."   The World Bank is doubling its food aid to Sub Saharan Africa (to 800 million from 400 million).  He also noted the Bank will increase investments in boosting agricultural production worldwide.



The World Food Program (WFP) remains serious about providing food aid to Haiti.  However, the agency operates exclusively on voluntary contributions.  If they receive the funds they need, they can meet the needs of Haiti's most vulnerable.  Of the $96 million they have requested specifically for Haiti, only about 13 percent has been received.  This is deeply worrying.   What would WFP do if they had the money?  They would prioritize urban areas, school feedings, and ensuring pregnant mothers and children receive the food they need to be healthy.   If they receive the funding, they will expand interventions in the North-west and South-east Departments, and will develop food-for-work projects in collboration with the Ministry of Social affairs.


The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) will double its child feeding program to combat malnutrition and spend some $1.6 million on water and sanitation projects in the northwest and Artibonite regions according to U.N. Spokesperson Michele Montas, herself a Haitian.


The Organization of American States in conjunction with the Pan American Development Foundation have announced a donation of 400 tons of rice, valued at $1.5 million dollars.



The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) said in a report that failing to take action would put future generations in jeopardy.  The article notes that the study, which was backed by the World Bank and World Health Organisation, examined measures that could reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods and work towards achieving the UN's millennium development goals. 



The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), which contributed to the report, said food represented 60-80% of consumer spending in developing countries, compared with about 10-20% in industrialised nations. It also reported investment in agricultural science had decreased and more sustainable, environmentally sound and equitable ways to produce food were needed.  The report calls for a more holistic view of agriculture and urges governments, NGOs and the private sector to work together to ensure the needs of the future are better served.  Professor Robert Watson concludes the piece by stating that  "Business as usual would mean more environmental degradation and the earth's haves and have-nots splitting further apart. It would leave us facing a world nobody would want to inhabit."



The President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva (Lula) both affirmed his support for biofuels (from non food crops) and stated that food riots are a wakeup call to the international community.  As he put it, "Food riots also underline the need for an agreement in the so-called Doha round of global trade negotiations...Rich countries need to reduce farms subsidies and trade barriers to allow poor countries to generate income with food exports...Either the world solves the unfair trade system, or every time there's unrest like in Haiti, we adopt emergency measures and send a little bit of food to temporarily ease hunger."



Speaking of biofuels, the food crises has definitely resulted in a more critical look at this innovation as a long term solution to energy independence.  A recent article in the New York Times notes that biofuels made from food crops such as corn, sugar, soybeans and oil palm may burn cleaner than fossil fuels, but experts say high demand is sending ripples through the world economy, including rising food prices.  Haiti Innovation has never advocated for biofuels from food crops.  We instead push for jatropha and other non edible alternatives with proven potential.



The potential effects of climate change on food production are also being discussed.  The New York Times today ran an article on how severe drought in Western Australia is impacting Haiti and other developing countries throughout the world.   Many Australian farmers are switching from rice to less water intensive crops such as wheat.    In a country like Haiti that imports four/fifths of its rice, the repercussions are severe.



Even alternative food sources are being examined.  Believe ir ot not, the United Nations named 2008 the International Year of the Potato, calling the vegetable a "hidden treasure".  According to the article, potatos are the third most important global food crop after wheat and rice.  I was unaware that potato flour can be used to make bread, a world staple.   The article also notes a downside - Raw potatoes are heavy and can rot in transit. They are also susceptible to infection with pathogens, hampering export to avoid spreading plant diseases



Finally, you can track the cost of food commodities such as rice, corn, gasoline, and charcoal on the Build Haiti website.  Build Haiti is also endeavoring to list NGOs, contacts in government ministries, and private sector organizatrion in an effort to increase economic opportunities in Haiti.  If you want more information, visit their website, email them at info@buildhaiti.com or phone toll free at 1-866-989-2539.



I wish it didn't take protests to focus the international community's attention on food insecurity in Haiti.  But progress in development, governance, health and education depends on this.   We'll keep you informed of new developments.



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