February 18, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

Beyond the Emergency

 Before the calamitous earthquake, Haiti was inBefore the calamitous earthquake, Haiti was in the news for another tremor: the global food crisis of 2008.

Shortages of rice and the resulting high prices had poor Haitians foraging through dumps and eating concoctions called “mud pies,” mixtures of grain and dirt.  That misery prompted the masses to take to the streets in protest, which led to a government shake-up.

Now, as emergency food aid rushes into the country to relieve the misery of people dislocated from the earthquake, it is time to also deal with Haiti’s chronic hunger and malnutrition.

The clamor is rising that the phrase “building back better” also needs to include Haiti’s agriculture system.  The United Nations issued a “flash,” or emergency, appeal for $575 million to help rebuild the country after the earthquake.  Fortunately, the world has responded with a flood of money.  But the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says its part of the appeal – $23 million to help revive Haiti’s food production – is being largely ignored.  Only 8% has been funded.

Reviving the agriculture sector is key to weaning the country off post-earthquake food aid.  “The immediate priority is support for the farm season that begins in March and accounts for more than 60% of food production,” warns FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.

Reviving the agriculture sector is key to weaning the country off post-earthquake food aid.  “The immediate priority is support for the farm season that begins in March and accounts for more than 60% of food production,” warns FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.

But seeds, fertilizers and tools to help Haitian farmers plant are largely absent from the emergency aid.  “We are alarmed at the lack of support to the agricultural component,” Diouf says.

Lack of support to agriculture throughout the developing world has been a dire lament for the past three decades.

Haiti’s recent history illuminates an oft-overlooked reality of global hunger: the vast majority of today’s hungry are far from the crisis hotspots and the cameras that flock to them.  Instead, their hunger is a chronic, everyday grind.  For them, every day is a food emergency.

Haiti’s food crisis in 2008 was hastened by tropical storms that damaged its main agriculture area.  But the longer-term drop in food production since the 1980s is less an act of God as it is an act of man.  Namely, man’s flawed theories of economic development.

In the era of cheap food that reigned for a couple of decades until the commodity price spikes in 2008, the theory of “comparative advantage” held that poor countries were better off buying their food from the U.S. and other big producers rather than growing it themselves.  The peasant farmers of the poor countries could instead work in factories, like in the textile industry where those countries had a low-wage advantage; the money earned from the factory exports would then be used to buy food.  If a hunger crisis arose, food aid would flow in; the world had plenty of excess grain.

The food crisis of 2008 exposed the folly of this theory.  Higher prices, caused in one measure by dwindling global surpluses, meant those export earnings bought less food.  And the higher prices also made food aid more expensive.  Hunger spread.  People rioted.

In June 2008, Joel Millman and I wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

“For decades, poor nations were discouraged from investing too much in agriculture, which was seen as a problem rather than a solution to fighting poverty.  Many free-market economists came to believe that the reason billions of people are poor is because they are shackled to subsistence farming.  The economists’ solution: find something else for them in manufacturing, tourism or services so that they can make money to buy food instead of growing it.

“Poor countries were discouraged from growing much of their own staples, such as rice and wheat, that are usually grown more cheaply in rich countries.  Instead, they were told to focus on export crops that might fetch a higher price.”

In Haiti, farmers had stopped growing rice and instead drifted to factories making things like underwear.  Food production plummeted, but as long as prices remained low, the country could import what food it needed.  Haitians who clamored for food self-sufficiency went unheeded.  “In all my years that we asked for help, the answer was: No.  Agriculture is not a tool for development,” former Haitian agriculture minister Philippe Mathieu told Millman amid the 2008 crisis.

Urged to redirect spending from local farming to areas like assembling underwear for export, Haiti’s governments rarely spent as much as 3% of the country’s annual economic output on food production.

As a result, much cheaper U.S. rice slowly displaced local rice.  In the mid-1980s, the Artibonite River valley, known as Haiti’s rice bowl, produced more than 100,000 metric tons of rice.  By 2003, the Artibonite was producing less than 80,000 metric tons of rice.  Haiti became the world’s biggest importer of rice – it imported about 400,000 tons in 2007 – and the number four market for U.S. rice growers.

The food crisis prompted both donors and recipients of aid to rethink doctrines about the role of agriculture and whether poor nations should strive to feed their own people or rely on the world’s trading system to do so.

Haiti thus becomes another test of the Obama administration’s resolve to deploy its new doctrine: Feeding the Future, a global food security initiative that aims to reduce hunger and poverty through agriculture development.

“In Haiti, we have the chance to deliver something that the global community has long declared a priority: to transition from short-term interventions to addressing the underlying causes of hunger and poverty,” writes Cheryl Mills, counselor and chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

As Haiti builds from the rubble of the earthquake, a new attack on hunger can rise from the rubble of disastrous development policies of the past couple of decades.the news for another tremor: the global food crisis of 2008.


| By Roger Thurow

A Wondrous Journey

Cruising down I-80 in the summer is one of the most wondrous, and paradoxical, drives in the country.

| By Roger Thurow

1,000 Days and Migrant Stress

The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 

| By Roger Thurow

Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

» Learn more.
» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

Learn more »

The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

Learn more »


Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

Learn more »