Pangs of Hunger, Pangs of Guilt

What happens when the one million Haitians abroad try to feed the 10 million Haitians at home.

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Most Americans, even those who have occasionally faced what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls "food insecurity," will never experience the depth of hunger gripping poor countries around the globe and triggering a rash of food riots.

It is the sort of hunger that causes families to forage garbage dumps to look for discarded food, even if the food is rotten and contaminated; that induces girls as young as 8 years old to barter their bodies for an orange or a single dollar; that compels little boys to stand outside restaurants frequented by moneyed Americans to beg for leftovers; that prompts mothers to mix clay dirt with biscuit powder to stretch meals and calm cramps in their children's empty stomachs; that makes grown men cry because they can't feed their families. It's the kind of hunger that makes people angry enough to take to the streets and risk getting shot by government forces.

It's also the kind of hunger that makes Haitian-Americans like me feel an incredible sense of sadness, not to mention an overwhelming sense of guilt, because all of these events are happening in our homeland. How can we not despair? We live in a country of abundance while our countrymen live with scarcity – without enough food or drinkable water, without adequate healthcare or public education, without even a tiny fraction of the opportunities available in the United States. And no matter how much we do to help– and believe me we do plenty – it is never enough.

One million Haitians abroad just cannot save 10 million Haitians at home. It's a mathematical impossibility made all the worse by the recent food crisis. The most painful and infuriating aspect of this is that both my homeland and my adopted home were partially complicit for not adopting policies that could have prevented the deadly riots, or at the least softened the blow of the rising food prices that prompted them.

We Haitian-Americans are a proud bunch; we want our little island to be known more for its beautiful art, music and literature, than its poverty. Some of my countrymen will take issue with me for once again unearthing our dirty laundry, but it's already hung out there for the world to see. Not talking about it won't change anything.

Still, the food crisis has bombarded us with feelings of shame as Haitians, and as Haitian-Americans. I, for one, need to vent.

You can help three relatives in Haiti this week, and next week three more will need help. The $300 I sent regularly to one cousin is considered a lot of money; the average Haitians earn less than $400 annually. Now it doesn't go half as far and the calls and letters from Haiti are coming more frequently. "Have you forgotten me?" one cousin asked in a letter last month. I'd sent her $100 two months before, the equivalent of $730 Haitian dollars, an amount that used to tide her over for a while but that doesn't last as long now because of the ridiculous price of food.

Haitians were starving long before the global food crisis occurred. In a country where the vast majority of nearly 10 million people live on less than $2 a day, feeding the population has always been the government's biggest challenge – and its biggest failure. One discredited and inept administration after another has failed spectacularly at it, and the more corrupt and heartless among them did not even bother to try.

But Haitian political leaders are not solely to blame. They've been crippled by complicated global economic forces and political deal-making that have more to do with the American farm lobby than bad Haitian leadership. U.S. farm subsidies and food aid policies enriched American farmers, but undermined Haitian farmers, making it almost impossible for them to profit and remain viable, let alone to feed their countrymen. World Bank and International Monetary Fund lending policies forced Haiti to accept agriculture products from the U.S. rather than grow its own. They have sanctioned trade policies that reduced tariff protections for Haitian rice and other homegrown food and have opened Haiti's markets to outside competition it cannot afford.

And Haiti is not alone. In Somalia, Bangladesh, Peru, Rwanda, Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Malawi,Senegal, Uzbekistan, and Burkina Faso – 12 other countries in all – large populations of people living on the economic margins can no longer afford to pay for rice, bread, or cornmeal. These high-carb foods that health-conscious Americans dutifully avoid are life or death staples for the world's poor.