It's the middle of the day; the sun is up, the heat rising in Port au Prince, the capitol of Haiti. Thousands of young men and women fill the streets, lining up, moving from place to place. They are looking for work, any work; work that might pay them enough to eat – for hunger is on the march here. Garbage is carefully sifted for whatever food might be left. Young babies wail in frustration, seeking milk from a mother too anemic to produce it.
Haiti is an epicenter of the global food crisis. Its people live on the margin of survival. According to the UN World Food Programme, the largest and most effective food aid organization here, 56 percent of the population exists on less than a $1 a day; Sixty percent of household cash goes to food. Hunger is a constant companion. Of all children under 5, 61 percent are anemic; the same goes for 46 percent of women. Nearly half – 47 percent – of all Haitians are malnourished.
But now the price of rice, wheat, flour and oil has doubled in the last year. In October of last year, $4.50 was sufficient to buy two full meals; now that money would buy one meal. Haiti only produces 43 percent of its food needs; it imports more than half. Food aid provides only 5 percent.
Now hunger is spreading; mass starvation is threatened. Earlier this month, Haitians rioted in anger over soaring food prices; and the legislature dismissed the former Prime Minister. On Monday of this week, a new prime minister, Ericq Pierre, was sworn in.
The question is whether the United States and Europe will respond, provide emergency food aid to Haiti, and help seed a long term development plan that will make it less dependent on foreign food and oil. As this is written, the U.S. government has yet to respond in any notable manner.
The new president is an experienced diplomat, former senior advisor to the Inter-American Development Bank. He understands that US friendship is vital. His first priority, he said, was to stop the drug trafficking which corrupts officials and distorts the economy. Remittances from the United States are Haiti's leading source of revenue, larger than any export. He looks to extend the agreement that keeps U.S. markets open to Haitian textiles, clothing that Haitians finish and ship back to the States.
He is desperate for debt relief. Impoverished Haiti sends $70 million a year back to the World Bank, headed to $100 million. And finally, he says, Haiti needs food aid now to stem the upheaval that will come from spreading desperation.
Here is where America has a responsibility – for we intervened to overthrow the Haitian dictatorship and then again to displace its elected leader. We now have an opportunity to demonstrate that we see the Haitians as human, as neighbors. Why not set up a program to insure that every Haitian child has a school to attend, that supplies a book pack and a breakfast and lunch? We could help educate and feed the next generation of Haitians.
The wealth of America is most visible from these shores. Faced with a desperate economy, Haitians are not going to get a rebate from their government. According to experts here, farmers now lack the seeds for a new crop in June. The situation of this tiny nation of 9.2 million is getting worse.
America, of course, is experiencing its own troubles. Soaring food and gas prices are squeezing budgets here also. The recession is likely to get worse before it gets better, despite the rebates arriving in the mail. Yet, in America, lower income people – those who must watch their spending – are usually the most generous in their charitable giving. Can America respond to its neighbors even when its own economy is in trouble, when many of its own citizens are worried about their future? It is an unfair challenge, perhaps. But hunger won't wait for our economy to recover.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist and the founder of the RainbowPUSH organization.