Spiraling Food Prices Buffet Poverty-Stricken Haiti Food riots last week in Haiti resulted in seven deaths — and in the prime minister's ouster. These events grimly illustrate how the rising cost of commodities threatens to deepen instability in the hemisphere's poorest country.
NPR logo

Spiraling Food Prices Buffet Poverty-Stricken Haiti

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89739099/89750263" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Spiraling Food Prices Buffet Poverty-Stricken Haiti

Spiraling Food Prices Buffet Poverty-Stricken Haiti

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89739099/89750263" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. All this week, we've been looking at the causes and consequences of the soaring price of food. For Americans, it means dinner costs a little more. For some people in the world, it may mean no dinner at all. And our final story this morning takes us to Haiti, where the prime minister was ousted in the face of food riots. Those riots took the lives of six Haitians and a U.N. peacekeeper just last week. From Port-au-Prince, the capital, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on how the rising cost of commodities threatens the poorest country in the hemisphere.

JULIE McCARTHY: Demonstrators in Port-au-Prince chanted: We're dying of hunger. The president is doing nothing. His palace was later stormed. A melee erupted. At least 40 people who had been shot during the three days of unrest were treated here…

(Soundbite of banging)

McCARTHY: …a trauma center run by Doctors Without Borders. A gunshot victim from the normal course of events in this violent city is wheeled from surgery in this hospital that has the only emergency room in the capital.

Haitians are well-acquainted with scarcity: Most people here live on just $2 a day, but it now takes nearly half that to buy a small container of rice.

Hedi Annabi, a special representative of the U.N. secretary-general, says the increasingly fragile state of the population is undermining Haiti's path to political stabilization.

Mr. HEDI ANNABI (Special Representative, United Nations Secretary-General): Obviously, people who are hungry have no stake in stability. And if we cannot respond to some of their basic needs, I think all of the progress we have made in the last three years will be at great risk.

McCARTHY: Medical experts say the population at greatest risk is Haiti's children. Here in the basement canteen of Saint Vincent de Paul Primary School, children dig in to plates heaping with beans and rice supplemented with vitamins. In this student body of 2,100, only 1,300 are fed. Donors UNICEF and the World Food Program are falling behind in donations, unable to keep pace with the spiraling cost of rice that has hit $950 a ton, three times what it was at the start of 2007.

Still, headmaster Elnerve Petit says his school has become a magnet for parents desperate to feed their children.

Mr. ELNERVE PETIT (Headmaster, Saint Vincent de Paul Primary School, Haiti): (Through translator) Now that we have the food program, enrollment has gone through the roof. We don't know where to put children. We don't even have problems of children not attending school, because once they know they are going to get this one single meal, they're coming.

McCARTHY: The school lies in the slum of Cite Soleil. A man shovels mud from the street. Skipping schoolchildren in tidy gingham uniforms provide one of the few images of innocence and order. Men sit idle: no jobs, no prospects.

Marijo Joseph, a mother of seven, says her husband abandoned her, and she cannot afford food. Feeding her children a meager meal of rice, she says, is like having them drink bleach.

Ms. MARIJO JOSEPH (Mother of Seven, Haiti): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: Even if we buy a small tin of rice and cook it for all the children, it's so little, she says. It doesn't do anything for their hunger. It only cleans and washes their stomach.

At a nearby hospital, Dr. Frantz Pierre of the NGO Doctors of the World says people are posing as patients on days the hospital distributes food to those in its care. He says more children are being admitted for malnutrition, and more pregnant women are showing up anemic. He calls it a time bomb.

Dr. FRANTZ PIERRE (Doctors of the World, Haiti): Anything can happen. There's no job. There's no food. We have sicknesses. We have almost everything.

McCARTHY: Apart from the conventional explanations for the global food inflation, drought and too much corn and soy diverted to produce biofuels, Haiti has its own complications. Economist Claude Beauboeuf says this Caribbean nation opened its market to imported food that flooded in, choking off national production. He calls it…

Mr. CLAUDE BEAUBOEUF (Economist): The boomerang effect of savage neo-liberalization, and we are paying the price of that.

McCARTHY: President Rene Preval has cut the price of rice 15 percent and plans more local production. Lifelong Cite Soleil resident Stephen Pierre calls the measures too little, too late, as he clutches a bag of greens.

Mr. STEPHEN PIERRE (Resident Cite Soleil, Haiti): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: These are just leaves that I got to boil with corn, but I don't have the money to buy the corn, he says. We're in a hole and have no voice.

McCARTHY: But the U.S., Canada and France are speeding more aid to Haiti, while the country accelerates the search for a new prime minister. The United Nations, meanwhile, warns of more tense times across the globe, as high commodity prices show no signs of falling.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

INSKEEP: And at npr.org, you can hear the rest of our series on the impact of soaring food prices in places like China, Egypt and Britain.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.