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Responding to the Haitian earthquake in a sustainable manner

January 15, 2010

In efforts to help the survivors of the earthquake in Haiti we seem to be repeating some of the same old mistakes.  According to food first, “Farmers in other parts of the country are growing food that can be purchased and given to those in and around Port-au-Prince”.

Inspired, I sent off this email to the directors of Feed My Starving Children:

Hello sirs,
I have read with interest your earnest efforts at helping the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake.
As a Christian, your mission to feed the starving resonates deeply with me.

I am concerned, however, that your particular approach to helping might do more harm those in need.  I am absolutely certain that is not your aim which is why I decided to write to you directly.

I wanted to bring your attention to the fact that your shipping quantities of food from the U.S. to crisis locations actively undermines the food producers in those countries and in so doing leaves local populations in situations of dire food insecurity.  With food insecurity in place, its only a matter of time before more emergency food reserves are needed.

For example; you are currently mobilizing volunteers to pack packets of food to be shipped to Haiti.  This food has been grown by U.S. farmers who received government subsidies to grow the food at below market rates.  The food is then purchased, using funds donated by your supporters) or donated by large multinational conglomerates such as Monsanto and Cargill.  You ostensibly use American shipping companies and airlines to get the food to the ground in Haiti where it will be distributed to those in need.

The problem with this supply chain is that local farmers in Haiti have been growing locally appropriate foods for this whole growing season.  They, and their food stocks have not been affected by the earthquake.  There are thousands of tonnes of culturally appropriate food currently available from these local sources.

Your free food aid will end up filling the food market place and local food producers and distributors will be flooded out of the food market.  It doesn’t matter who you are, nobody can compete with free!  Next season, Haitian farmers will have made no profit from the food they grew last season (many being subsistence farmers who are only able to sustain themselves and their families on a season by season basis).  Not having any profits from the previous season they will be unable to pay for fertilizer and other farm inputs and will surely sink further into poverty.  Its almost predictable that half a year from now, Haiti will endure a biting hunger epidemic because local farmers will not have planted enough food to feed the population.

inevitably your organization will ship even more free food aid and the cycle will continue.
Repeat this scenario in every country you are currently distributing free food and we’ve got a major problem.  We’ve had a major problem for a while.

Why don’t you just raise money from your donors and purchase food for your food aid programs locally?  That way you and your organization’s supporters are able to nurture the nascent food industries in poor countries.  From farmers, distributors to local shopkeepers and market women, a sustainable food supply chain will have benefits that truly feed God’s starving children.
Surely you can explain this to your donors and still retain their support.

I know there is a large possibility that this email will go largely ignored but I pray that it will not.  The future of millions of poor starving people is at stake.

Sincerely yours,

Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2010 3:08 PM

    Thank you for such an insightful and illuminating piece. I handed it out to the students in my African Politics class. Thanks again!

  2. January 22, 2010 3:10 PM

    I’m loving this letter featured in the Minneapolis Start Tribune

    Dear Pat Robertson,

    I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I’m all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I’m no welcher.

    The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth — glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake.

    Haven’t you seen “Crossroads”? Or “Damn Yankees”? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there’d be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox — that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it — I’m just saying: Not how I roll.

    You’re doing great work, Pat, and I don’t want to clip your wings — just, come on, you’re making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That’s working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.

    Best, Satan


  3. Sylvia Kamau-Small permalink
    January 27, 2010 11:04 AM

    This is very helpful information. The next piece would be for someone to give a list of organizations and contact information so that those of us looking for appropriate local and grassroots entities to contribute to can do so… What I see on my end are good and Christian people truly wanting to help, but only being given access to the normal (and as has been pointed out, undermining) channels and organizations. Can you help get me connected to some local organizations or non-profits who will have more impactful and sustainable forms of support for Haiti?

    Sylvia Kamau-Small

  4. January 27, 2010 11:12 AM

    Yes! I agree that the problem is actually not the people who want to help and do good, but organizations that fail to think through the impact of their actions, or who are so driven by the need to publicly be seen engaging in relief efforts that they lose sight of the big picture.

    My favorite source for organizations doing sustainable relief efforts in Haiti:

    I’m particularly fond of Grassroots International whose approach is:

    “We know from over 26 years of experience that the best aid strategy – be it in Haiti and elsewhere – is to work directly with the people most affected. Emergency relief, like all aid, needs to be led by the communities themselves and move from the bottom up, not from the top down. We know from past history that Haiti has not been well served by the aid industry – Haiti’s reliance on food aid has only grown over the years. To the extent possible, we will provide cash to our partners to make local purchases of the items they most need and to obtain food from farmers not hit by the disaster”


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