For just 13 cents, Judith Alexandre is now able to buy a hot meal at a local restaurant in Haiti. Subsidized meals are one of the initiatives Oxfam is supporting to help people confronting a food crisis in Haiti. Credit: Bernard Cherelus
A dramatic cut in import tariffs lead to a drop in national rice production.

Haiti No Longer Grows Much of Its Own Rice and Families Now Go Hungry

“If people are hungry, they have no stake in stability”
Hedi Annabi
UN

Judith Alexandre, a single mother, lives with her two children in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and like a lot of other families there they have only one choice when it comes to managing the dramatic increase in food prices: They skip meals.

Breakfast is no longer part of her children's morning routine. Alexandre can't afford it. Most of what she earns as a street vendor in the Carrefour-Feuilles district of Port-au-Prince she was already spending on food for her family. But the steep rise in the cost of rice, a Haitian staple, is pricing Alexandre and her family out of regular meals.

Less than 20 years ago, the country was nearly self-sufficient when it came to rice production. But in 1995, when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund pressured Haiti to cut import tariffs on rice from 50 percent to 3 percent, cheap subsidized rice from the US began to flood into the country. Urban consumers benefited for a while from the low-cost imports, but they caused national rice production to plummet. Today, Haiti is now importing 80 percent of the rice it consumes—just as world prices have doubled.

More than half the country's population is malnourished, and more than 80 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line. Rising prices provoked riots in several Haitian cities earlier this spring and forced the resignation of the country's prime minister.

"If people are hungry, they have no stake in stability," said Hedi Annabi, the UN special representative in Haiti. "They will be ready for anything—for anarchy—because they have nothing to safeguard or to fight for."

While the entire country is affected, cities—where the majority of people live—are especially hard hit.

Agriculture, which employs more than 60 percent of the Haitian workforce, is one of the areas most affected by trade liberalization policies. An estimated 830,000 jobs in Haiti have been lost in recent years, primarily in agriculture.

What is Oxfam doing?

In the capital, Port-au-Prince and the town of Jacmel in the southeast, Oxfam is helping families hardest hit by the rising food prices. Working through local partners, Oxfam is supporting subsidized community restaurants, school canteens, and helping parents pay off debts to schools. Cash-for-work community clean up activities are also planned for several neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince.

In rural areas in the north of the country, Oxfam is organizing a cash-for-work canal cleaning project, improving and diversifying crops and vegetables, and improving market links for small farmers.

It is through the community restaurant that Alexandre has found some relief from her hardship.

"I am the sole provider for my children," she said. "Their father dies a year ago and now I am alone. If he was here, it would be much easier to manage."

For just 13 cents, Alexandre and her children can now buy a daily subsidized hot meal at one of eight community restaurants supported by Oxfam.

"It's unthinkable that I would be able to buy a meal for my kids for 5 gourdes (13 cents)," says Alexandre, smiling. "It means that every day I have been able to save a little bit of money for other things. Now not all of my money must go on buying food."

Run by a local organization, the restaurants provide immediate relief to those families hit hardest by rising food prices. They are open from 10 a.m. to noon four days a week, and serve up to 200 meals a day, ranging from cornmeal and fish to bouillion, a hearty Haitian vegetable stew.

Story by Oxfam America, June 2008.