'A hungry man is an angry man," goes the old adage. And for months Haitians have compared their hunger to "eating Clorox [bleach]" because of the burning of their stomachs. Now riots have broken out and five people have died in a week of protests. A U.N. peacekeeper has been shot and killed. The Haitian Senate voted to fire the prime minister. With angry protesters demanding that the President Rene Preval step down, he announced a 15 percent decrease in the price of rice.
That won't help. Food prices are up 40 percent on average across the world since the middle of last year, causing riots in countries from the Cameroon to Egypt to Haiti. For countries like Haiti, where 80 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day, the rising price of rice, beans and cooking stuff translates directly into hunger, starvation and rage. Those living on the knife edge of survival have no way to adjust.
Food prices have risen due to a "perfect storm." Demand from industrializing countries like China and India is rising. Supply has been reduced due to climatic disruptions and because of use of crops for biofuels. China, India, Vietnam and other rice exporters have limited exports to meet domestic pressures. The high price of oil makes transportation ever more costly. The price of rice has virtually doubled in a year; wheat has risen even faster.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, predicted widespread economic disruption if food prices do not come down. "The consequences," he warned, "will be terrible." World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned that 100 million people might be pushed farther into poverty if nothing is done.
The World Food Program made an emergency appeal for donations for Haiti. It said on Monday it has received only 13 percent of the $96 million necessary for its Haitian program. Globally, the leaders of the seven leading industrial countries meeting in Washington agreed to support a World Bank "New Deal" for food, and called on donors to provide $500 million in funding for short-term relief. World Bank President Zoellick said that only about half of that sum had been pledged.
The Federal Reserve just spent $29 billion to bail out one investment bank. Grumbling from executives of the otherwise bankrupt Bear Stearns bank led JP Morgan and the Fed to raise the buyout price by $1.2 billion, essentially a giveaway to Bear stockholders. The change in the price alone is more than double what is needed to counter the threat of starvation across the world.
Haiti, of course, is right off our shores. The U.S. has a special responsibility there, having played a major role in dispatching Jean Bertrande Aristide, the elected president, and putting a new regime in his place. Worse, thousands of Haitian immigrants now face deportation back to Haiti. They came here under "temporary protected status" after tropical storms and economic upheaval. Now that status has to be renewed -- otherwise the U.S. will be sending Haiti more mouths to feed, not more food to eat.
Our own economy is headed down, with Americans feeling increasingly pessimistic and hard pressed by rising costs of everything from gas to food to health care. This is a difficult time to feel generous toward those with even less. But surely, if we are shipping $29 billion to bail out Bear Stearns, then we can afford to contribute our fair share to help the "least of these" avoid starvation in a proud island nation off our shores.
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