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.
Unlike past food crises brought on by droughts, wars, or natural disasters, what is occurring now is largely the result of global fuel prices. There is food on hand in these affected countries, but people cannot afford to buy it. Energy costs have soared and caused an increase in transportation fuel costs. The demand for ethanol production in the U.S. and Europe has pushed corn prices up by some 25 percent, and the price of rice and wheat has more than doubled. In the U.S. these price increases have led to belt-tightening and less spending on leisure, but in the developing world they mean eating just one meal a day, if you're lucky, or eating sporadically if you're not.
In Haiti the cost of a 50-pound bag of rice had risen beyond the reach of ordinary Haitians, until President Rene Preval stepped in last month and announced subsidies that cut the price from$51 to $43, and offered other measures to appease his hungry public. The related political pressure led to the ouster of his prime minister. The anger was palatable and surprisingly effective, and it made the government take notice. For once it made me feel that poor Haitian people were not entirely helpless. They rioted because they were hungry, but they also rioted because they were hungry for change.
If you visited Haiti, you might understand why the government's reaction to the riots was a hopeful development in a place that often seems hopeless. The images of starving children on American television and in U.S. newspapers are nothing compared to the realities that assault you on Haitian streets: Teeming slums, beggars everywhere, woman pleading with you to take their children.
Take one; please madam, save just one of my children. Please, take this child, she's the prettiest.
I've heard such pleas more times that I can count. Each time I do, I empty my pockets and give these desperate mothers what I can, I donate to charities I know are helping them, and I pray. Oftentimes I think Haiti's problems are too much for even God to handle.
On good days, though, I know that things are not entirely hopeless and that Haitian expatriates are not entirely helpless. Haitian-American organizations throughout the U.S. have swung into action and raised funds and food for Haiti. They've lobbied their representatives in the U.S. Congress to push for more U.S. emergency aid.
International aid organizations and donor nations have pledged financial aid and several tons of food. The Haitian government plans to strengthen agricultural production. The Bush administration has issued $200 million for emergency food aid worldwide, and the Haitian government will spend its portion subsidizing and stabilizing food prices for the next six months. The World Bank provided a $10 million grant to help increase social safety nets such as school feeding programs. These are important moves that could stave off long-term problems: more death and disease, continued civil unrest and political instability, refugees flowing to American shores.
Haitian immigrants send millions of dollars home in remittances every year, $1.1 billion in 2006 alone, according to the World Bank. Yet we have not been able to leverage our financial contributions into political influence to bring real change at home. We pay tuition fees to help relatives in Haiti get an education even though we know that when they graduate there will be few jobs waiting for them. We bring relatives to the U.S. to find work and help support family back home, but while that saves lives, it also perpetuates the massive brain-drain that has robbed the country of some of its best and brightest. More than 80 percent of Haitians with college degrees live abroad, mostly in the U.S., Still, we all know that a country that continually exports its most valuable commodity, its human capital, is a country that will not continually thrive. We have been able to save individual lives, but unable collectively to save our country. We make little dents here and there, but only minimally mitigate its crushing poverty.
We have our work cut out for us.
The numerous domestic charitable organizations and foreign relief groups doing commendable, life-saving work in Haiti can't replace what could be done if the talents, skills and education of Haitians living abroad were harnessed and put to work on the island. But how can we return to and flourish in a nation that can't feed its people, let alone educate or provide them with health care? Eighty of every 1,000 Haitian children born die before their first birthday. Half of the population cannot read. So we stay here in the U.S., where dreams are limitless and opportunities abundant, and we do all we can for family back home. We have no choice.
Marjorie Valbrun is a Washington, D.C. based journalist.