The Economist, which calls the current crisis the silent tsunami, reports that last year wheat prices rose 77% and rice 16%, but since January rice prices have risen 141%. The reasons include rising fuel costs, weather problems, increased demand in
Hermite Joseph, a mother working in the markets of Port au Prince, told journalist Nick Whalen that her two kids are “like toothpicks – they’re not getting enough nourishment. Before, if you had a dollar twenty-five cents, you could buy vegetables, some rice, 10 cents of charcoal and a little cooking oil. Right now, a little can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and is not good rice at all. Oil is 25 cents. Charcoal is 25 cents. With a dollar twenty-five, you can’t even make a plate of rice for one child.”
The St. Claire’s Church Food program, in the Tiplas Kazo neighborhood of Port au Prince, serves 1000 free meals a day, almost all to hungry children – five times a week in partnership with the What If Foundation. Children from Cite Soleil have been known to walk the five miles to the church for a meal. The cost of rice, beans, vegetables, a little meat, spices, cooking oil, propane for the stoves, have gone up dramatically. Because of the rise in the cost of food, the portions are now smaller. But hunger is on the rise and more and more children come for the free meal. Hungry adults used to be allowed to eat the leftovers once all the children were fed, but now there are few leftovers.
The New York Times lectured
Thirty years ago,
In 1986, after the expulsion of Haitian dictator Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loaned
Doctor Paul Farmer was in
“American rice invaded the country,” recalled Charles Suffrard, a leading rice grower in
Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian priest who has been the pastor at St. Claire and an outspoken human rights advocate, agrees. “In the 1980s, imported rice poured into
Still the international business community was not satisfied. In 1994, as a condition for
Rice is a heavily subsidized business in the
The Cato Institute recently reported that rice is one of the most heavily supported commodities in the U.S. – with three different subsidies together averaging over $1 billion a year since 1998 and projected to average over $700 million a year through 2015. The result? “Tens of millions of rice farmers in poor countries find it hard to lift their families out of poverty because of the lower, more volatile prices caused by the interventionist policies of other countries.”
In addition to three different subsidies for rice farmers in the U.S., there are also direct tariff barriers of 3 to 24 percent, reports Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute – the exact same type of protections, though much higher, that the U.S. and the IMF required Haiti to eliminate in the 1980s and 1990s.
And it is not only the Haitian rice farmers who have been hurt.
Paul Farmer saw it happen to the sugar growers as well. “
After the riots and protests, President Rene Preval of
Thirty three countries are at risk of social upheaval because of rising food prices, World Bank President Robert Zoellick told the Wall Street Journal. When countries have many people who spend half to three-quarters of their daily income on food, “there is no margin of survival.”
In the U.S., people are feeling the world-wide problems at the gas pump and in the grocery. Middle class people may cut back on extra trips or on high price cuts of meat. The number of people on food stamps in the US is at an all-time high. But in poor countries, where malnutrition and hunger were widespread before the rise in prices, there is nothing to cut back on except eating. That leads to hunger riots.
In the short term, the world community is sending bags of rice to Haiti. Venezuela sent 350 tons of food. The US just pledged $200 million extra for worldwide hunger relief. The UN is committed to distributing more food.
What can be done in the medium term? The US provides much of the world’s food aid, but does it in such a way that only half of the dollars spent actually reach hungry people. US law requires that food aid be purchased from US farmers, processed and bagged in the US and shipped on US vessels – which cost 50% of the money allocated. A simple change in US law to allow some local purchase of commodities would feed many more people and support local farm markets.
In the long run, what is to be done? The President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who visited Haiti last week, said “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."
Citizens of the USA know very little about the role of their government in helping create the hunger problems in Haiti or other countries. But there is much that individuals can do. People can donate to help feed individual hungry people and participate with advocacy organizations like Bread for the World or Oxfam to help change the U.S. and global rules which favor the rich countries. This advocacy can help countries have a better chance to feed themselves.
Meanwhile, Merisma Jean-Claudel, a young high school graduate in Port-au-Prince told journalist Wadner Pierre "…people can’t buy food. Gasoline prices are going up. It is very hard for us over here. The cost of living is the biggest worry for us, no peace in stomach means no peace in the mind…I wonder if others will be able to survive the days ahead because things are very, very hard."
“On the ground, people are very hungry,” reported Fr. Jean-Juste. “Our country must immediately open emergency canteens to feed the hungry until we can get them jobs. For the long run, we need to invest in irrigation, transportation, and other assistance for our farmers and workers.”
In Port au Prince, some rice arrived in the last few days. A school in Fr. Jean-Juste’s parish received several bags of rice. They had raw rice for 1000 children, but the principal still had to come to Father Jean-Juste asking for help. There was no money for charcoal, or oil.
Jervais Rodman, an unemployed carpenter with three children, stood in a long line Saturday in Port au Prince to get UN donated rice and beans. When Rodman got the small bags, he told Ben Fox of the Associated Press, “The beans might last four days. The rice will be gone as soon as I get home.”
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He can be reached at [email protected] People interested in donating to feed children in Haiti should go to http://www.whatiffoundation.org/ People who want to help change U.S. policy on agriculture to help combat world-wide hunger should go to: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/ or http://www.bread.org/