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Food aid reform in Haiti becomes more urgent as food insecurity and malnutrition increase

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Guest post by the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). For more rabble.ca coverage of Haiti visit this page

Washington DC--The Associated Press' Trenton Daniel has written an account of high levels of malnutrition and food insecurity in Haiti, reporting that:

Three years after an earthquake killed hundreds of thousands and the U.S. promised that Haiti would "build back better," hunger is worse than ever. Despite billions of dollars from around the world pledged toward rebuilding efforts, the country's food problems underscore just how vulnerable its 10 million people remain.

In 1997 some 1.2 million Haitians didn't have enough food to eat. A decade later the number had more than doubled. Today, that figure is 6.7 million, or a staggering 67 percent of the population that goes without food some days, can't afford a balanced diet or has limited access to food, according to surveys by the government's National Coordination of Food Security. As many as 1.5 million of those face malnutrition and other hunger-related problems.

The AP article follows the release last week of a USAID-sponsored "Famine Early Warning System Network" report that warns:

The early depletion of food supplies from bad harvests, the growing dependence for poor households on market, and a reduction in agricultural employment opportunities have contributed to the increasingly widespread acute food insecurity throughout the country. Many municipalities are currently in crisis.

Late rains, seed shortages (driving up seed prices), and withering crops that were planted early are factors contributing to climbing food prices, the report states.

Daniel surveys some of the government’s responses to the challenge. One of the more hopeful efforts to tackle hunger in Haiti that Daniel describes is the Petrocaribe-funded program "Aba Grangou":

Shortly after taking office, President Michel Martelly launched a nationwide program led by his wife, Sophia, called Aba Grangou, Creole for "end hunger." Financed with $30 million from Venezuela's PetroCaribe fund, the program aims to halve the number of people who are hungry in Haiti by 2016 and eradicate hunger and malnutrition altogether by 2025. Some 2.2 million children are supposed to take part in a school food program financed by the fund.

Eberwein, whose government agency oversees Aba Grangou, said 60,000 mothers have received cash transfers for keeping their children in school. A half million food kits were distributed after Hurricane Sandy, along with 45,000 seed kits to replenish damaged crops, he said. Mid- to long-term solutions require creating jobs.

But the villagers in the Belle Anse area say they've seen scant evidence of the program, as if officials have forgotten the deaths in 2008 of at least 26 severely malnourished children in this very region. That same year, the government collapsed after soaring food prices triggered riots.

The article notes that USAID, which has awarded $1.15 billion in contracts and grants to for work in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake, has devoted only two-thirds as much ($20 million) to a post-Hurricane Sandy food program as the Petrocaribe-funded Aba Grangou. Not to worry -- AP cites an expert who assures readers that were people not receiving the aid, they would riot:

USAID has allocated nearly $20 million to international aid groups to focus on food problems since Hurricane Sandy, but villagers in southern Haiti said they have seen little evidence of that.

Despite the discrepancy, one public health expert said there's sufficient proof that at least some of the aid is reaching the population. Were it not, Richard Garfield said, Haiti would see mass migration and unrest.

"Overall aid has gotten to people pretty well. If aid hadn't gotten to people that place would be so much more of a mess," said Garfield, a professor emeritus at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and now a specialist in emergency response at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "You'd see starvation and riots ... The absence of terrible things is about the best positive thing that we can say.

But as has been discussed repeatedly in news articles, on this blog, and elsewhere -- and as former president Clinton has admitted - U.S. food assistance policies are in large part responsible for the destabilization of Haitian agriculture and the related prevalence of food insecurity and malnutrition. As we have previously noted, Chemonics, by far the largest single recipient of USAID funds, used to be a sister company to Comet Rice, which was a central player in this tragedy.

Proposed reforms to such food aid practices made by the Obama administration could assist an additional four million people for the same amount of funds, according to USAID; the Center for Global Development (CGD) estimates as many as 10 million more. As CGD’s Beth Schwanke describes, these proposals would “relax in-kind and cargo preference requirements on emergency aid, shift $250 million of non-emergency food aid into a new account without in-kind restrictions, and eliminate monetization.” But these and other proposed reforms [PDF] are being strongly opposed by vested interests that profit from the current system, at Haitians’ expense.

This article was originally published on the Haiti Reconstruction Watch blog project of the CEPR on June 11, 2013.

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