Eating Mud in Haiti by Stanley Lucas

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Eating Mud in Haiti by Stanley Lucas

There is nowhere in the world where eating mud for a meal would be acceptable, yet that is exactly what is happening in Haiti.

Poverty has reached such a critical level that people have actually taken to eating "mud cookies", literally mud mixed with a little salt and dried in the sun. This is a national crisis and should be the priority for the Haitian government, but astoundingly, it is not.

Led by President Preval and Prime Minister Alexis, the government has been focused on scuttling efforts to organize overdue Senate elections and amending the Constitution to allow the leadership to remain in office.

In the meantime, people are starving - and becoming frustrated.

Members of Parliament have received tremendous pressure from their constituents who are fed up with their poor quality of life in virtually every aspect: lack of security, poor roads, sporadic electricity, no drinking water, political intimidation, corruption, no jobs, no education opportunities, little if any healthcare, and so on. The Preval Administration has neglected to make even a minor improvement in any of these areas.

Therefore, the MPs have called for a vote on February 28 on the performance of the Prime Minister which will result in vote of confidence or a vote of no confidence and a sanction, or potentially removal from office.

It is hard to imagine what sort of an argument they could develop to convince the people that they should remain in office.

There is no record of accomplishments they can point to, nor is there even a serious plan in place to make any critical improvements to the country.

In the backdrop of this vote is the simmering undercurrent of discontent among the population.

Should the results of the February 28 vote be perceived as being manipulated or "bought", there could be a significant outpouring of discontent and wide scale protests across the country.

What Haiti does not need is further political chaos.

The Preval Administration should meaningful address this situation immediately and treat it like what it is: a crisis.

It should be the top concern for the country and all policies should be revamped to reflect this basic priority.

Note that in the US, policy radically shifted in the wake of the 9/11 crisis.

The US Congress and President came together to put together a plan to eliminate the terrorist threat to the country and US policy in almost every sector was reviewed to take into account this new crisis.

Six years later, US policy is still largely driven by national security.

Haiti's poverty and starvation crisis should have the same type of impact on Haitian policies across the board.

As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, this is the crisis for Haiti and should be dealt with as seriously and cohesively as the 9/11 crisis was in the US.

Why are people eating mud?

Poverty is obviously the main reason, but there are several structural issues that have also led to this crisis.

First, food is just too expensive.

Haiti imports more than 75 percent of its food from overseas, and the importation of food products is a monopoly controlled by close friends of President Preval.

Therefore, there is no price competition and prices are skyrocketing.

In 2006, a bag of rice cost US$90. Today, a bag of rice costs $200. Haitian per capita income is less than US$600, making a bag of rice a serious investment for a Haitian family.

On average, the cost of living has increased 35 percent since President Preval and Prime Minister Alexis have taken office, but per capital income remains flat.

Further, this monopoly is indirectly protected by the government through discriminatory practices and abuse of authority.

For example, if a company wanted to import and sell flour, they would first have to apply for funds from the banks, which are all controlled by close friends of the current government.

Chances are that they will not be able to secure the money through delays or outright rejection on flimsy grounds.

If the capital was actually secured, or if the company had enough capital to import food independently, they will certainly encounter exceptionally long delays at customs while their flour rotted on the docks.

This happens time and time again giving other companies, often owned by Haitian diaspora who are the most likely to have the means to undertake such activities, a strong signal that Haiti's food market is not open for business.

Second, the government's agricultural policy is in shambles.

Haitians are abandoning the countryside and moving into Port-au-Prince to take up residence in the cities swelling slum districts.

They have no incentive to stay in the countryside and farm so food production has decreased substantially.

Even if they did stay in the countryside, there is little arable land due to the abysmal state of the environment and antiquated methods of farming.

The country needs to investment in modernizing agriculture and creating jobs in this sector.

There is no reason that the country should have to import 75 percent of its food. Each year, Haiti imports almost US$400 million in food products from the Dominican Republic and more from the United States.

These crops could be grown in Haiti if the proper policies were in place to encourage agricultural growth.

Considering the annual budget of Haiti is US$2 billion, it is obvious what an impact it would make in the economy for Haiti to not have to import that food from the Dominican Republic.

Further, the Preval Administration has left several other opportunities on the table.

The HOPE legislation has made limited - if any - impact on the economy.

Haiti was completely left out of the CAFTA agreement with the US while our neighbors in the Dominican Republic were able to leverage the opportunity and participate in the trade incentives and economic development opportunities that agreement provides.

The entire Latin American and Caribbean region is maximizing the new movement toward biofuels and ethanol.

Any efforts in Haiti to capitalize on this promising new sector have been thwarted by the Administration's inability to develop a plan for the country, and further by the seizure of state lands by close associates of the Preval Administration effectively keeping out any potential foreign investors or local entrepreneurs.

The third reason is the more fundamental problem of poverty.

There are no jobs and the economy is one of the worst performing in the world.

The Preval Administration has failed to outline any feasible plan for economic development or attracting any investment.

The bottom line is that the country's leadership has not provided any solutions or relief.

By no stretch of the imagination can anyone assert that the Preval Administration has made any progress on economic development.

There is no infrastructure to attract investment.

There is no economic policy to develop Haiti's potential.

Haiti has not participated in the world's economic growth boom or even in the regions major sources of economic growth such as light manufacturing, tourism, or biofuels.

Countries such as China and India which have dealt with these challenges on a much more massive scale have made remarkable and historic strides in lifting record numbers or people out of poverty.

These countries are focusing on how to get to the next rung on the development ladder.

Even the Dominican Republic is moving up a rung from basic manufacturing to taking on manufacturing of more complex technology products.

And Haiti remains stagnant unable to even reach the first rung.

What should be done now?

We need to start back at the basics.

In the short term, the Haitian government needs to first ensure that the agricultural sector is an free and open market allowing competition.

Second, the government needs to develop a real agricultural policy and an emergency anti-poverty policy.

Concurrent with these urgent actions, we need to develop a real economic policy that takes into account: revising regulations to attract investment and encourage private business; investing in education and an infrastructure; supporting agricultural reform, and virtually every other aspect of economic development.

Jobs in the agricultural sector are possible.

Jobs in light manufacturing are possible.

But not when opportunities are left on the table due to a preoccupation with maintaining power coupled with a complete lack of planning.

Jasmin Joseph, January 29 2010, 2:22 PM

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