Haitians Hit Hard by Food Crisis

Haitians get water. THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images.

hide captionHaitians take advantage of potable water from a public fountain in the Cite Soleil slum of Port-au-Prince in January 2008.

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Food prices remain drastically high in the Caribbean country of Haiti, where two-thirds of the population is living on less than two dollars a day. Many Haitians are eating cookies, made of dirt, to suppress hunger. Economist Kesner Pharel and journalist Roosevelt Jean-Francois discuss the crisis.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On Thursdays we like to focus on international news, and today we want to return to the crisis in Kenya, where more than a thousand people have been killed in the wake of the contested presidential election last December. The head of the Kenyan Commission on Human Rights is with us, fresh from his testimony on Capitol Hill. We're also going to discuss the sensitive topic of tribal conflict. That term is often used in connection with conflicts in Africa, but we want to ask about what that term really means and when should that term be used. But first, we want to go to Haiti.

If you've been to the grocery store lately, you may have noticed that food prices have gone up in recent months, something that's being blamed on high energy costs. It's an inconvenience to most Americans. But in Haiti the spike in food prices is causing misery for people who are already among the poorest in the hemisphere. There are reports that some have taken to eating cookies made of mud to suppress hunger pangs.

We're joined on the phone from Ft. Lauderdale by Roosevelt Jean-Francois, the Miami bureau chief of the Haitian Times; and economist Kesner Pharel is in Port-au-Prince. Gentlemen, welcome, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ROOSEVELT JEAN-FRANCOIS (Haitian Times): Thank you, and we are very happy to talk with you, Michele, this morning.

MARTIN: Thank you. Mr. Pharel, are you there?

Mr. KESNER PHAREL (Economist): I'm there, and so glad to speak to you and say hi to my friend also from (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Oh, wonderful. Mr. Pharel, you're living in Port-au-Prince. When did you notice the increase in food prices?

Mr. PHAREL: I think it's a very difficult situation for Haiti now since, you know, commodities, they are so high. And some Latin American (unintelligible) are benefiting from that, since the exporting. But in Haiti it's different since you have like less than one billion U.S. dollars from exports, we're importing so much. The demographic situation is tough for us. The demand is so high. So I can say we're paying a high price because of this situation that we have in the world markets - oil, rice, and any other commodities.

MARTIN: What triggered the increase in Haiti? Is it just the general global situation - high energy prices which push up the price of, you know, fertilizer, transport, all of that, because so much food has to be imported? Is it generally the world situation? Or are there specific factors in Haiti contributing to the increase?

Mr. PHAREL: For food there are some (unintelligible) factors. But I could say in the last two, three years the government has done some macro-economic stabilization, so they're having some discipline on the (unintelligible) side and also on the monetary side, so we could say inflation is not coming in Haiti now from the bad policy inside of the country. We're paying what we can call imported inflation, like what the oil and the commodity prices. As I was saying, in Haiti right now demand is so high because we're growing like more than two percent, like the population, and since the production, the national production is so low, so we could say (unintelligible) that we have. So we're importing so much food, we're importing so much oil, so price are going up and the imports, more than $1.6 billion. So if we're importing so much and exports are so low, we get a trade deficit so high, and (unintelligible) for the government to be able to (unintelligible) macro-economic stabilization to be able to stabilize the price and the economic situation inside of the country.

MARTIN: Mr. Jean-Francois, what are you hearing about how people are coping with the high cost of food? As I mentioned, there have been reports about so-called mud cookies made from yellow clay and salt and shortening that people in some communities are eating just to stave off hunger. Do you think - are these isolated cases or do you think that this is a common practice?

Mr. JEAN-FRANCOIS: I will say that this is isolated cases, but what happened is that Haitians in Haiti, they used to have more agricultural production and since now we are very dependant in that we import foods from the Dominican Republic and also from the U.S., and when prices overseas go high and the impact of the Haitian economy on the Haitian families become higher. We used to import and we used to export. We will take advantage of the economy with - now with the stabilization of the U.S. dollars comparing to the Haitian goods if we have in the position to export to the U.S. nowadays.

Since now we are very dependant and we receive most (unintelligible) and money from families living abroad and since we now with the credit crunch in the U.S. and with the slowing market, mostly in the housing market, and since most of the families living in the U.S., some of the them have lost their houses and they have also to use money for their own goods, so they do not send as much money as they used to. So this gave the Haitian families inside Haiti less money to buy foods when the prices are getting higher.

So I will say there is a crunch between what they used to have and the high prices of the product. As Mr. Pharel mentioned, we are leaving and we are being affected by what we call imported inflation, where we are paying higher for things coming abroad.

MARTIN: Mr. Pharel, the irony here of course is that organizations like the International Monetary Fund are praising Haiti for its economic growth. So how is it then that circumstances are so dire for poor people? I mean is there no - is there just sort of a disconnect between how the economy is performing and whether people are actually able to function? And is there any food aid coming from donor nations like the United States?

Mr. PHAREL: Before I'm saying this question, I'd like to go back to the question you just asked Roosevelt, and I think he's right. It's a very isolated case that you're talking about, like when you see on the Internet Haitians are eating this type of food. I'm not so sure on that. I've been talking to these people in the food security - sure, not all Haitian are eating the way they're supposed to do, but I'm not so sure that what we're seeing right now in the Internet is exactly the situation in Haiti.

And the IMF has just said that Haiti get back to the growth path like we're having for like 2.5 percent in the next - in the last two years. But I should say that it's not enough, since for the last 20 years the curve was almost negative. We have like minus 0.9 percent. So even now we're back to the growth path, but we need to grow at at least 5 percent (unintelligible) 10 percent level, as our neighbor in the Dominican Republic they are doing.

So Haiti now, the problem is not on the macro side, what the IMF is talking, we have to go to micro-economic side, we need to create some regional growth like across the - like to see how we can produce much more, not only for Haitians to eat, but also to export, to get more money inside the economy.

So the government doesn't have a plan right now saying exactly what are they doing on the micro-economic side. That's the weakness that they have in the country now. And also I could add, they should be more aggressive on the social part, because we have like more than one million Haitians now in a very difficult situation. I'm talking about extreme poverty. We've got 4.5 million living with less than one U.S. dollar, seven million with less than two U.S. dollars. So we need to create jobs so the government got to be able to attract more investors and also benefiting from the U.S., and I think we shall put it so well. The wealth effect that you have in the States now, Haitians feeling less better, so we suffer from that in Haiti since we're depending so much from the diaspora in the U.S.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we're talking about the economic situation in Haiti with Roosevelt Jean-Francois, the Miami bureau chief for the Haitian Times, and Kesner Pharel, an economist in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. So to that point, Mr. Jean-Francois, I take your point that if the remittances are probably decreasing because some Haitians in the U.S. are struggling, you know, themselves, for all kinds of sort of reasons - so Mr. Pharel, what do you recommend then? Do you think an increase in food aid is warranted at this time? Or is there some other form of assistance that is called for? Is it simply a matter of trying to get the Haitian economy to be more productive?

Mr. PHAREL: I think in the short term it might be good to have some food aid help from the U.S. or any other country, any other donor. But I think we've got some structural problems (unintelligible) in Haiti. When you're talking about inflation in Haiti, it's not only the world market prices. It's not only the situation in the macro-economic, but also the structural part like the ports, the airports - I mean we need to have better management of these facilities. So it's a problem also, Haiti, we're not competitive enough. So we need to get some reforms on the public administration, and I think lately the president has been talking about that.

So prices is not only just having good macro-economic stabilization to please the IMF, it's not just having money coming from the outside, but you need to put some other also on the machinery and to be able to be very competitive. So the government got to send some good signals and to try to (unintelligible) and they have to also - to create a better environment like on the law side, and to send like good signals to all investors, Haitian outside, and to attract them inside the country. That's pretty much the plan they have to put on the table, but I think this plan is missing now from the government.

MARTIN: Mr. Jean-Francois, we only have about a minute left. Can we hear from you - and I'd love to hear whether the Haitians in the U.S. are worried about their relatives back home.

Mr. JEAN-FRANCOIS: So first of all, as far as mentioning that you have the security situation, and you also have the brain drain; we have to mention that. So that means now we have more capable Haitians living abroad, and those were where now they are facing with this situation in the U.S. where the economic is shrinking, and I would like also to add that the initiative that we have for President Preval with Venezuela for Petrol-Caribe. But they received the agreement, but so far we haven't transformed that agreement into reality. So now that's why beyond everything we need that leadership capacity to build up the country, to attract investors and also for the country to produce. Because without production we may received whatever aid, whatever economic situation from the U.S., but if Haitians do not produce, we'll not be that competitive, and if we are not competitive, we will not produce enough situations.

MARTIN: I understand. Mr. Jean-Francois, we have to leave it there. Thank you so much. Roosevelt Jean-Francois is Miami bureau chief for the Haitian Times. He joined us on the phone from his office in Ft. Lauderdale. We were also joined by Kesner Pharel. He's an economist in Port-au-Prince. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

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