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The View from Haiti

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It's the middle of the day; the sun is up, the heat rising in Port au Prince, the capitol of Haiti. Thousands of young men and women fill the streets, lining up, moving from place to place. They are looking for work, any work; work that might pay them enough to eat for hunger is on the march here. Garbage is carefully sifted for whatever food might be left. Young babies wail in frustration, seeking milk from a mother to anemic to produce it.

Haiti is an epicenter of the global food crisis. Its people live on the margin of survival. According to the UN World Food Programme, the largest and most effective food aid organization here, 56% of the population exists on less than a $1.00 a day. 60% of household cash goes to food. Hunger is a constant companion. 61% of all children under 5 are anemic; 46% are women. Nearly half - 47% -- of all Haitians are malnourished.

But now the price of rice, wheat, flour and oil has doubled in the last year. In October of last year, $4.50 was sufficient to buy two full meals; now that money would buy one meal. Haiti only produces 43% of its food needs; it imports more than half. Food aid provides only 5%.

Now hunger is spreading; mass starvation is threatened. Earlier this month, Haitians rioted in anger over soaring food prices; and the legislature dismissed the former Prime Minister. On Monday of this week, a new prime minister, Ericq Pierre, was sworn in.

The new president is an experienced diplomat, former senior advisor to the Inter-American Development Bank. He understands that US friendship is vital. In his first statements, he put priority on stopping the drug trade. Needless to say, he was concerned that Haitians temporarily in residence in the US not be sent home. Remittances from the US are Haiti's leading source of revenue, larger than any export. He looks to extend the agreement that keeps US markets open to Haitian textiles, clothing that Haitians finish and ship back to the US. He hopes for debt relief. Impoverished Haiti sends $70 million a year back to the World Bank, headed to $100 million. He needs that money to invest in schools in infrastructure, in agriculture. And finally, he says Haiti needs food aid now to stem the upheaval that will come from spreading desperation.

Here is where America has an opportunity to demonstrate that we see the Haitians as human, as neighbors. Mr. Bush, who has grown ever more unpopular at home and isolated abroad, can use this crisis to demonstrate leadership. Why not set up a program to insure that every Haitian child has a school to attend, that supplies a book pack and a breakfast and lunch? We could help educate and feed the next generation of Haitians.

The wealth of America is most visible from these shores. Faced with a desperate economy, Haitians are not going to get a rebate from their government. The situation of this tiny nation of 9.2 million is getting worse. Last week, over twenty Haitians died as their boat capsized trying to make it to America. Desperation will drive many more to make the attempt.

America, of course, is experiencing its own troubles. Soaring food and gas prices are squeezing budgets here also. The recession is likely to get worse before it gets better, despite the rebates arriving in the mail. Can America respond to its neighbors even when its own economy is in trouble, when many of its own citizens are worried about their future? It is an unfair challenge, perhaps. But hunger won't wait for our economy to recover.