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Friday, April 9, 2010

Haiti: Hunger is the Unrelieved Disaster

Before the earthquake, Haitians were contending with disaster. And this was a disaster in the true sense of the word: a sudden and calamitous break from the norm, an event that brings great suffering. Anybody with a cursory understanding of history or current events knows that Haiti is a poor country—poorer than poor. But while the many learned, in graphic detail, about the extent of hardship caused by this winter’s earthquake, comparatively few people knew exactly what the Food Crisis (which became acute in 2008) had done and was doing to the people of Haiti.

The Food Crisis is a phenomenon that is still playing out. It is little understood, although its effects are having a profound effect on the poorest of the poor, those who squeak just barely above or below the margin of survival, depending on how much money or labour they can trade for sustenance. We know that it is related to broad and deep factors, such as the dietary trends towards more meat-eating (which is more agriculturally expensive) in rapidly developing economies, or weather patterns that are growing more erratic. The world body has so far come up with only one solution to the problem of many millions more people for whom grain has become too expensive: more donations to the World Food Program, please. And quick.

But it seems the donations don’t come easily or quickly enough. In Steven Stoll’s excellent Harper’s article ‘Towards a Second Haitian Revolution’ (April 2010), he reports that after 2008, ‘Haitians lined up for rations and filled their bellies with fine silt, mixed with water, shortening, and salt, shaped into discs and set out to harden in the morning sun. Dirt eating in Haiti stems from a craving not for any trace minerals the eaters might ingest but for the sheer mass in the gut. As one woman said to a journalist, “Once you eat [the biscuits] you don’t feel hungry anymore. That and a glass of water and you feel satisfied.” To supplement the clay cakes, children compete with pigs for the gleanings along open sewers.’

Once every penny has been spent for earthquake relief in Haiti, we must tackle another disaster, a precedent calamity. What is the solution for hunger as profound as this? Not mere food donations, but investments into the ability of Haitians to feed themselves, mend their own health, and sustain their own communities. Unbeknownst to most, Haitians used to easily feed themselves on their own famously productive small farms. Is it time, as Stoll suggests, to ‘give Haiti a chance to recover the best part of its history and to stun the world again with the genius of its freedom’?

See an update on HOPE International Development Agency's work in Haiti.

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