Haiti's Battle with Hunger, Poverty, Corruption

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - A recent earthquake has devastated the island of Haiti, but conditions in the country have been desperate for years.

There's never enough food, the economy is in shambles and the government is corrupt.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and many of its citizens are at the bottom of the global food chain. For decades the country has received billions in foreign aid.

But in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, corruption and rising costs form a toxic mix that is pushing many in this nation's lower class from poverty into outright starvation.

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

A stroll through one marketplace shows it's not a lack of food, but a lack of money. Merchants line the streets selling corn, rice and beans - much of it from the United States.

But the cost of shipping has risen so steeply that few can turn a profit. It's led some to resort to drastic measures - such as literally eating mud - to feed their families.

Through the United States Agency for International Development, known as USAID, American taxpayers send about $200 million a year to help fight the hunger.

Much of that aid ends up in places like the one where Greg Elder works - an orphanage run by Catholic Relief Services.

Elder is the assistant director of CRS and has been working in Haiti for 15 months. In coordination with USAID, he's helping Haitians help themselves.

"Haitians are having a hard time at the moment helping themselves. One reason being the environmental degradation that's taken place over the decades," he said.

Haiti's subtropical climate is ideal for agriculture, but when farmers cut down trees to make charcoal, heavy rains wash away the topsoil, leaving large parts of the country unfit for cultivation.

And even in places where they can grow food, the high price of gasoline makes it impossible to get it to market. 

A Pauper's Wage

"Americans are feeling the crunch right now with high gas prices, but fuel prices in Haiti are averaging $6 - $7 a gallon," Elder said.

This only makes the situation worse - and back in the marketplace, frustrations are high.

"We don't know what to do because we're in debt to the banks," one Haitian woman complained. "Borrowing money in Haiti is like stabbing ourselves. If we don't pay, the bank will charge us $10 interest per day."

The average Haitian makes about $1 a day - not nearly enough money feed a family on.

What will it take to solve this problem? Elder believes that the answer must be found within Haiti's own borders.

"Haiti relies mainly on imports for its food. If we can boost production within the country, that will inevitably bring down prices," Elder said.

But until that happens, this poverty stricken island still needs all the help it can get.

*Originally aired July 29, 2008.

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