by Imelda V. Abaño
- Philippines -
The ongoing rice shortage, for instance, has pushed many Filipino families into poverty. I have seen poor Filipinos queuing up just to buy a kilo of cheap rice, starving children and women begging for money or food in the streets, and demonstrations against the government due to the skyrocketing prices of basic goods on the market.
Hunger is the most crucial manifestation of poverty. In many parts of the world, the soaring prices of food, fuel and other basic goods have triggered social unrest and a growing sense of urgency.
Witnessing the realities of the devastating consequences of poverty and rising food prices up close reminded me of my first visit to Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries.
In June, I went to Haiti with five other journalists for an experience unlike any of my previous trips abroad. The abject poverty and despair I witnessed there is far more extreme than in my own country. Never before have I seen such deprivation than that which I saw in Haiti; the human suffering is all too real and heart-rending.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, is plagued by violence, hunger, unrelenting extreme poverty, disease, high unemployment rates, low life expectancy and crumbling health and educational systems.
Hunger in the unhealed land of Haiti
Haiti is a country of great beauty, but even the beautiful sunsets and green mountains cannot hide the poverty. Most Haitian families live in crowded homes made of cardboard and tin. There is no running water and little or no electricity. Urban slums teem with garbage, sewage and people. There is never enough food. Women and children are always hungry. Illness and disease are common, especially among children, as more than half the population has no access to Western medicine. Unemployment ranges from 60% to 70%; those with jobs earn a minimum wage of just $1.50 a day.
The Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince has been plagued by violence since 2004, when a bloody revolt toppled then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, destabilizing the government, scaring away foreign investors and strangling business.
As I traveled from one place to another in Port-au-Prince and the adjacent town of Jacmel, the incredible diversity of the country became very apparent. Like in my own country, for most Haitians, daily life is a struggle for survival.
I met a young Haitian woman carrying a bunch of bananas on the top of her head. She begged me to buy them so she could buy food for her three children waiting for her at home."Please madam, my children are starving and they are waiting for me," the lady begged me in French. She said that she came down from the mountains, a four-hour trek, just to sell her goods. Her husband, who used to sell charcoal in the lowland, was sick, leaving her as the family’s only hope for survival. She said that her family eats only two times a day because they cannot afford to buy more food.
"Poverty is so extreme here that we sometimes rely on eating mud cookies to relieve our hunger," she lamented.
Mud cookies are a traditional food in Haiti, usually eaten only by pregnant women and children; Haitians believe it is a good source of calcium.
This short encounter with a Haitian lady, who I could barely understand, brought tears to my eyes.
For years, a growing number of Haiti's poor have been pushed beyond endurance by price increases in food staples. The cost of rice, beans, flour and corn has risen some 50 percent since last year. Haiti has seen riots, even killings, over food. Its prime minister was the first bureaucrat to fall to the crisis, forced out of office several weeks ago by daily street riots.
"Desperation is spreading among the poor Haitians. The country is rife with street crime, carjacking and even kidnapping because people are desperately hungry," said Annamaria Laurini, Representative of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) during my visit to their office in Port-au-Prince. “If the situation is not stable, it is really difficult to deliver basic services for the poor, especially to the children.”
Food is so scarce and expensive that most Haitian children receive very little nutrition, even less than the average Filipino child. It is estimated that 46% of all children under the age of five are severely or moderately stunted in growth due to malnutrition.
"The situation of children in Haiti remains tenuous, largely due to chronic poverty and a history of violence linked to political instability. Haiti continues to be characterized by inadequate primary health care and limited access to nutrition services," said Dr. Teresa de la Torre, UNICEF-Haiti's Chief of Health and Nutrition.
Citing the 2008 UNICEF Report, De la Torre said Haiti has among the worst indicators of health and nutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean. In fact, only 33 percent of children under one year have been completely vaccinated against preventable diseases."It's a very bad situation. But we are optimistic that the situation will get better if coordination and monitoring of programs in response to the nation's current food crisis improve," De la Torre said. For 2008, UNICEF is addressing the basic health needs of 11,500 children suffering from moderate to severe malnutrition and vaccinating some 50,000 children under five in affected areas. Like in Haiti, food insecurity in the Philippines is blamed for the fact that many preschool children are underweight and malnourished. The Food and Agricultural Organization in 2005 reported that there were more than 17 million undernourished Filipinos.
Despite this grim scenario, many still believe that with the strategic help of the international community, there is a way out for Haiti.
"While the global food crisis is devastating the well-being of Haitians, causing riots and acute hunger, the Haitian government must continue to do something to improve local food production and investing in health care," said Guy Polynice, a resident of Jacmel.
Polynice said addressing this grave crisis requires the solidarity of the international community, and in particular, the need to examine the global right to food.
Meanwhile, the poor and starving in impoverished nations around the world all continue live each day on the edge of desperation.
About the Author
Imelda Visaya-Abaño, began her journalism career in 1998 as a reporter at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading daily newspaper in the Philippines. Her areas of interest are women and children's issues, science, environment, health, agriculture and education.
In 2002, Ms. Abaño was honored as the Asian Winner of the Global REUTERS-IUCN Media Awards on Environmental Reporting.
Ms. Abaño vows to continue serving her community through balanced news and fearless views. She believes in better journalism for better communities.