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Human RightsExplainer: Feeding Haiti in times of crisis

Explainer: Feeding Haiti in times of crisis

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Gangs reportedly control up to 90 per cent of Port-au-Prince, raising concerns that hunger is being used as a weapon to coerce local populations and hold sway over rival armed groups.

They control key routes to farming areas to the north and south and have disrupted the supply of goods, including food. 

This in a country which has a predominantly rural farming population which some believe could be self-sufficient in food. 

So, what’s gone wrong? 

Here are five things you need to know about the current food security situation in Haiti:

Children in Haiti eat a hot meal provided by the UN and partners at school.

Are hunger levels rising?

There are some 11 million people in Haiti and according to the most recent UN-backed analysis of food security in the country around 4.97 million, almost half the population, needs some type of food assistance. 

Some 1.64 million people are facing emergency levels of acute food insecurity.

Children are particularly impacted, with an alarming 19 per cent increase in the number estimated to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in 2024.

On a more positive note, the 19,000 people who were recorded in February 2023 as facing starvation conditions in one vulnerable neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince have been taken of the critical list.

WFP is working with farmers to supply food for school-feeding programmes.

WFP is working with farmers to supply food for school-feeding programmes.

Why are people going hungry?

UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Catherine Russell said the current “malnutrition crisis is entirely human-made”. 

The key drivers of the current food insecurity are increased gang violence, rising prices and low agricultural production as well as political turmoil, civil unrest, crippling poverty and natural disasters.

An estimated 362,000 people are now internally displaced in Haiti and have difficulties feeding themselves. Some 17,000 people have fled Port-au-Prince for safer parts of the country, leaving behind their livelihoods and further reducing their ability to buy food as prices continue to increase.

According to the UN Security Council-mandated Panel of Experts on Haiti, gangs have “directly and indirectly threatened the nation’s food security”. 

Displaced people shelter in a boxing arena in downtown Port-au-Prince after fleeing their homes due to attacks by gangs.

Displaced people shelter in a boxing arena in downtown Port-au-Prince after fleeing their homes due to attacks by gangs.

The escalation of violence has resulted in economic crises, increased prices and exacerbated poverty. The gangs have disrupted food supplies by, at times, shutting down the economy by threatening people and mounting widespread roadblocks, known locally as peyi lok, as a deliberate and effective ploy to stifle all economic activity.

They have also blocked key transportation routes and levied extortionate, unofficial taxes on vehicles that attempt to pass between the capital and productive agricultural areas.    

In one case, a gang leader in Artibonite, the country’s main rice growing area and a relatively new focus for gang activity, issued multiple threats on social media, warning that any farmers returning to their fields would be killed. The World Food Programme (WFP) reported in 2022 that there had been a notable decrease in cultivated land in Artibonite.

Meanwhile, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that in 2023, agricultural production plummeted by around 39 per cent for maize, 34 per cent for rice and 22 per cent for sorghum compared to the five-year average.

How did we get to this point?

While the current hunger crisis in Haiti has been exacerbated by the control the gangs exert over the economy and daily life in Haiti, it has its roots in decades of underdevelopment as well as political and economic crises.

Deforestation partly due to poverty and natural disasters like flooding, drought and earthquakes, have also contributed to food insecurity. 

Trade liberalization policies introduced in the 1980s significantly reduced import taxes on agricultural products, including rice, maize and bananas, undercutting the competitiveness and viability of locally produced food.

What is the UN doing?

The UN humanitarian response continues in Haiti in coordination with the national authorities, despite the tense and volatile situation on the ground, especially in Port-au-Prince.

One of the key food-related activities is the distribution of hot meals to displaced people, food and cash to those in need and lunches for school children. In March, WFP said it reached over 460,000 people both in the capital and across the country through these programmes. UNICEF has also provided assistance, including school meals.

FAO has a long tradition of working with farmers and has been delivering essential support for the upcoming planting seasons, including cash transfers, vegetable seeds and tools to support agricultural livelihoods. 

The UN agency also continues to support Haitian-led national agricultural policies and the implementation of development programmes.

What about the long term?

Ultimately, the aim like in any underdeveloped country in crisis is to find the path towards long-term sustainable development which will include building resilient food systems. It’s a complicated situation in a country so dependent on humanitarian support provided by the UN and other organizations. 

The goal is to reduce import dependency on food and link humanitarian responses with long-term action on food security. 

So, for example, WFP’s home-grown school feeding programme, which provides lunches to students, is committed to buying all of its ingredients locally rather than importing them, an initiative which will support and encourage farmers to grow and sell crops that will improve their livelihoods and in turn boost the local economy. 

Cacao fruit grow on a tree in Haiti.

UN Haiti/Daniel Dickinson

Cacao fruit grow on a tree in Haiti.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has worked with farmers in the southwest of the country to grow highly nutritious breadfruit. Around 15 tonnes of flour have been milled, some of which is supplying WFP programmes.

ILO has also supported cacao farmers who have exported 25 tonnes of the valuable commodity in 2023. 

Both initiatives will boost famers’ incomes and improve their food security and according to the ILO’s country chief, Fabrice Leclercq, will help “to curb the rural exodus”.

Most agree, however, that without peace and a stable, secure society, there is little chance that Haiti will be able to significantly reduce its dependence on external aid while ensuring that Haitians get enough to eat.

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