Thousands Protest Hunger in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua; Debate Over Haiti Food Crisis Widens
June 3, 2008
By Jacqueline Charles
Is it better to provide food directly to the hungriest, cash to groups that best know the local needs, or cash to governments for subsidized food staples?
Photo: The Food for the Poor charity feeds at least 30,000 people daily in the slums of Port-au-Prince. They get mostly rice with a scoop of watery bean mixture. Carol J. Williams / Los Angeles Times
It's a policy debate that swirls around efforts by Haiti and other countries battling skyrocketing food prices -- and the hunger pangs that Haitians compare to ``acide batterie.''
The differing views on how best to address Haiti's food crisis are reflective of a wider debate among the world's donors and aid specialists over how to respond to growing global food shortages. The topic likely will come up beginning Tuesday at a three-day world food summit in Rome, where donors and agriculture experts will gather to deal with world food security.
Haitian President René Préval wants $60 million in cash to help cushion the blow from rising fuel and food prices by allowing poor Haitians to purchase rice, flour, cooking oil and other staples at lower, government-subsidized prices. To do that, he has asked for direct cash donations from the international community.
But the United States, Canada and France are largely sending rice, beans and other commodities.
The Rome summit is partly sponsored by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which has listed Haiti among 22 countries that are ''particularly vulnerable'' due to chronic hunger and reliance on imported food and fuel.
Since deadly food riots plunged Haiti smack into the middle of the global debate, the impoverished Caribbean nation has been the recipient of millions of dollars in food aid. Food has arrived by the planeloads from Venezuela, in 40-foot containers from South Florida schoolchildren and concerned citizens, and aboard U.S. ships -- or in the form of cash to the U.N. World Food Program.
The food is targeted primarily at pregnant women, nursing mothers and children. But with a goal of reaching 2.5 million out of a population of 8.5 million in a country where the vast majority are poverty-stricken, questions linger about whether food will reach those most in need.
Enter Préval's subsidy proposal. After announcing plans in April to subsidize rice, allowing the price of a 110-pound sack to temporarily drop from $51 to $43, Préval issued an international appeal for more funds to expand the program to include other staples of the Haitian diet.
So far the response to Préval's short-term appeal has been ''meager,'' said a Haitian government official. Outside of a $7 million donation from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and a $10 million grant from the World Bank, most of the aid has come in the form of food, funneled through nongovernmental organizations such as the World Food Program, or heavy machinery to help the country promote its long-term domestic production goals.
But some are critical of food subsidies.
''It doesn't solve the real problems,'' said Marc Bazin, a Haitian economist and former presidential candidate. ``Between now and October, rice will be $70 on the international market, the way things are going. What do we do then? Are we going to increase the subsidy? And with what?''
Another concern is that if subsidies are not targeted to those most in need, those who can afford to pay higher prices will get a break as well. Some critics also fear that in a country dogged by corruption, subsidized food will find its way across the border to the Dominican Republic.
U.S. officials, which did agree to an initial $1 million toward the rice subsidy, argue that while subsidizing staples may bring prices down, the program isn't sustainable.
''We give food, either in-kind or through [nongovernmental organizations],'' USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore said in an interview during a recent visit to South Florida. While here she announced the U.S. was providing an additional $25 million in emergency food aid to Haiti, bringing the total to $45 million.
''What we do not do is subsidy-based programs,'' she added.
Fore and other U.S. officials say they are aware of concerns about some people being left out of the food safety net.
John Wesley Charles, who runs World Vision in Haiti, said that after peasants in Haiti's Central Plateau told stories about others in their far-off communities who were in need but not being reached, the organization broadened its criteria for who was vulnerable.
The group is targeting 147,000 beneficiaries in 16 geographical zones in the country, he said in a telephone interview from Port-au-Prince.
While government-subsidized rice has offered a psychological boost, even if some still can't afford the lower prices, Charles said what residents want is cash.
''The conventional wisdom in development thinking is that in general it would be better to provide cash'' to boost the purchasing power of people who can't afford food if it's available locally and to help support the local economy, said Marc Cohen, a research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, which looks at ending hunger and poverty.
But with the $1.2 billion appropriated annually by Congress already not enough to meet the growing aid demands, Cohen said, ``there isn't a huge humanitarian slush fund available to fund something like that.''
Critics argue that as the largest donor of food aid, the United States needs to be more flexible with its policy, including a willingness to provide cash, instead of food, directly to those on the ground who know best how to stabilize the situation.
''The way our aid program is set up and the way they are negotiated with the agricultural community, we are really driven toward actually providing food,'' said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was among several senators who urged President Bush in a recent letter to provide more assistance for Haiti.
''When we ship in large shipments of food at low prices, it really destabilizes in many ways the agriculture communities in these countries,'' said Corker, who supports giving cash to allow recipients to buy food from local farmers in the distressed countries.
Robert Zachritz, director of advocacy and government relations for World Vision, said while the U.S. responses to Haiti in particular ought to be commended, the bottom line is the crisis requires a short-term response.