A War on Hunger in Haiti - What Would It Take?

  • Posted on: 3 February 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

I have seen several articles lately concerning the clay biscuits that the poorest of the poor in Haiti eat to make the hunger pangs subside. This is not a new phenomenon. Much of that clay comes from an area in between Hinche and Thomonde, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  We all know Haiti is desperately food insecure, but with hunger being such a complicated issue, do we know what to do in order to respond?  What would a Haitian “war against hunger” be like?



The primary responsibility for meeting the needs of the Haitian people rests with its government.  No government has declared the prevention of hunger as its highest priority – this one can be the first if it so desires.  Even without substantial resources, the government can and should develop an ambitious, actionable plan.  The health, stability, and growth of the country depends on it. There are many ways to come at the problem.  The government should communicate its priorities and work closely with partners to meet them.



Let’s start with the premise that to fight hunger in Haiti, the country must be able to feed itself.  If we can agree on that, it is clear that Haiti needs an agricultural revolution.  I am no agronomist, but as dry as some parts of Haiti have become, I would want to learn from countries that have painstakingly turned desert into productive land through various forms of irrigation.  Egypt comes to mind.   Perhaps study tours and exchanges of government officials could be arranged.  There may be types of crops that are suited to arid environments - if so they are needed.



Doing so will require halting, and eventually reversing, the environmental damage caused by deforestation and erosion.   Any plan must address this fact - the majority of the country is still using word charcoal for cooking.  The Dominican Republic has chosen to subsidize propane and Haiti could initiate a similar program - though the subsidies would need to be considerably more than in the Dominican Republic where consumers have more purchasing power.



Continued electrification of the country, all of it, would be an asset.  Electricity could be purchased from the Dominican Republic, hopefully at a reasonable rate.  Strategic use of alternate forms of energy such as solar power, wind power, and bio-fuels hold promise.   We wish the Peligre Dam didn’t exist due to the damage and displacement is has caused.  However, it is there and is in great need of modernization.  Ultimately, it is up to the government to decide which of these options are viable.



Civil society has a role in addressing pressure on the land.  Unfortunately, Haiti uses the Napoleonic Land System where property is passed on to the sons of each family.  When each generation has a large family, it doesn’t take long before parcels of land become so small that it is hard to make a living as a farmer particularly if the land is eroding.   Cooperation may be the answer, through agricultural cooperatives that pool land and resources.   This cannot and should not be mandated by the government.  It is up to communities to decide if and when collective agriculture will work.   Sometimes I wonder if today's problems stem in part from straying from the country's communcal roots, when the norm was for yards (Lakou) and land (Konbit) to be shared.  Maybe the past holds the answer?  



If the cultivation of Jatropha as a biofuel becomes a means to meet national energy needs and a profitable crop for export, this will open up opportunities for large scale production through cooperatives.   This could be a key innovation for revitalizing Haiti’s agricultural sector.



Haiti has been hungry for too long and as a result the country is not as healthy, productive, or as stable as it has the potential to be.  A social researcher named Maslow developed a “Hierarchy of Needs” which basically states that a person’s first priority is to meet their physical needs – food, water, shelter.  After these needs are met, a person’s priority becomes security.   Then a person becomes concerned with love and belonging.  After, a person focused on esteem needs – having self respect and being respected by others.  Finally, and only once these other needs have been attained (continuously), can a person focus on self-actualization – fulfilling one’s true potential and purpose in life.



Is it the whole picture?  No, it is a bit simplistic.  I’ve met many Haitians who were hungry and always put the needs of friends and family above their own.  If going hungry to meet the needs of friends does not represent love, then I don’t know what does.  But there is value in this model.  I think we can apply it to development schemes.  Does it make sense to discuss democracy promotion with a person who does not know where his or her next meal is coming from?  Or who lives in a slum that has no police presence?  Stability in a country depends on individuals, families, and communities being able to meet thier basic needs of which food is one.  


It pains me that Haiti remains a hungry country, more so each year.  Small ideas and patchwork plans are not going to turn the situation around.  There has to be a time where the Haitian government and all its partners – civil society, donor governments, international organizations, firmly state that the war against hunger has begun.  We would like to suggest that time is now - this is something that all of us can believe in and participate in.   Welcome your thoughts.




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