In 18th-century Haiti, a tropical climate and rich soil yielded massive crop production from plantations dotting the fertile island's coast. The small Caribbean country exported sugar, coffee, and tobacco to the world by the boatload. Further inland, subsistence farmers capitalized on near ideal conditions for growing rice.
Now a little more than 200 years later, the wails of hungry children echo throughout Haiti's urban slums and desolate countryside. So acute is the pain of empty stomachs that the nation's poor speak of "Clorox hunger," the imagined equivalent of bleach or battery acid eating away a person's insides.
Food markets throughout the country remain stocked with fruits and pastas. But for a majority population surviving on less than $2 a day, rising prices push such luxuries beyond reach. Instead, families fill their stomachs with cookies of mud to quiet the pain.
Historians and economists debate about how a nation once so rich in food production could fall on such desperate times. Most agree that no immediate solutions exist, a terrible reality.
That leaves international relief organizations to fill the gap between long-term change and urgent suffering. But the 40 percent spike in food prices over the past year affects charities almost as much as it does the poor.
World Vision's operations in Haiti already include a food security program for malnourished children and pregnant mothers. But the next scheduled distribution is not until June, and staffers report that current food supplies are already largely depleted. The agency is therefore planning supplementary measures such as the dissemination of seeds and tools to local farmers, who could produce a new harvest by late June or early July. World Vision also aims to provide jobs for locals that will help restore infrastructure needed to reduce flood damage.
Other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local churches are straining to help, too, but current needs outstrip the capabilities of private relief, prompting neighboring countries to join the effort. Brazil donated 18 tons of food in the first month of the crisis, and Venezuela is chipping in another 350 tons to the cause.
The UN has pledged to distribute 8,000 tons of food over the next two months, aiming to prevent further outbreaks of violence from frantically hungry people. The recent riots in the capital city of Port-au-Prince not only underscored the desperation of the situation but also challenged the efforts of workers trying to help. World Relief country director Hubert Morquette reports that staff members have at times been unable to leave home due to dangerous protests in the streets.
In an effort to appease protesters calling for the resignation of Haitian president René Préval, lawmakers fired Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis, a close ally of Préval who had headed the government since February 2006. Thus far, that peace offering appears to have satisfied a stiff political opposition, some of which has called for the return of former leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide ever since Préval came to power.
Aristide fled Haiti to exile in South Africa four years ago to escape the danger of an armed rebellion against his regime. Many Haitians question whether the fragile democracy that rose up from that ordeal can provide the political stability needed to maneuver the country out of decades of economic turmoil.
Laurent Dubois, a history professor at Duke University specializing in Haitian studies, views the current political strife as the latest iteration of a long tradition unlikely to change any time soon. "These problems are very old problems," he said, tracing the unrest all the way back to Haiti's conception in the great slave rebellion of 1804.
In the wake of that rebellion, Haiti shifted rapidly from a major player in world trade to an isolated nation intent on self-sufficiency. The former slaves populating the island were eager to own land rather than work for large companies. That understandable impulse led to a largely agrarian economy.
But urbanization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries began to undermine that society. And competition from imported rice pressed many small farmers to give up their operation. Home-grown Haitian commodities and food stuffs diminished significantly, leaving the country dependent on outside resources and a global economy.
"Haiti has no safety net," Dubois explained. "A change in larger global economics can really have a dramatic consequence on people's everyday lives. Many people are already eating very little and are very close to hunger levels anyway."
Relief groups acknowledge that their efforts in the country offer no real solutions, merely temporary reprieve. Some organizations, such as Partners In Health and Engineers Without Borders, are undertaking more sustainable projects like hospitals, schools, water sanitation systems, and solar energy technologies (see "Beyond charity").
But progress is slow. The lack of tax revenue to fund state maintenance of infrastructure discourages businesses from significant investment in the country. The resultant languishing economy spurs political instability, further poisoning the business climate. That destructive cycle appears unbreakable without considerable outside intervention, an assumption that inspired the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The stated goal of MINUSTAH: "to put an end to impunity."
Dubois is not so sure it can: "One could imagine that international assistance and aid and the construction of infrastructure could be very useful and might even seem essential. But the legacy of the projects that have been carried out is very mixed. Some people will tell you that external pressures and forces have always in the end been a disadvantage for Haiti and that an internal solution is the only good solution. Other people will tell you that given the lack of resources there needs to be some sustained outside investment to help build infrastructure. It's hard to know."
Among the proposed internal solutions: ethanol production, an idea steeped in irony given the current food shortage. That Haiti was once among the world's foremost sugar producers gave some prognosticators hope that the struggling nation could ride the recent surge in ethanol demand to economic autonomy. Turns out, ethanol is more villain than savior. Government subsidies and mandates for the alternative fuel throughout Europe and the United States have displaced food crops and contributed significantly to the worldwide hunger crisis (see "Feed My people").
Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, author of the book The Really Inconvenient Truths (Regnery, 2008), disparages the ethanol industry as a losing proposition propped up by governments in response to climate change alarmism: "Once seen as a political sweetheart deal, government mandating use of ethanol in gasoline and subsidizing its production became a vital component in the fight against global warming. Yet all the world's various biofuels laws have done is to force industries to burn food as fuel. This has precipitated food shortages and massive increases in food prices around the world."
But even if Haiti's 9 million people determined that the economic benefit of producing ethanol outweighed its detrimental impacts, widespread environmental degradation of the country's soil would limit crop yields as it has with rice. Haiti's best hope for economic turnaround may lie in a sort of mix of external and internal aid-namely, the return of a large and wealthy Haitian diaspora to reinvest in the land that birthed them.