By government decree, the food and hunger situation in Haiti has returned to normal.
The trouble is, for most people here, real life has yet to catch up.
In an effort to rev up the economy and motivate people to return to work, Haiti’s central government has forced aid organizations to stop the free food distributions that have sustained a hefty swath of the population – 30,000 bellies per day in Jacmel alone – since January’s earthquake.
“They don’t want to breed this dependency,” said Hazem El Zein, head of programs for the World Food Program’s Jacmel sub-office. “Basically we are following what the government wants us to do.”
Although the WFP has led the emergency food effort since the Jan. 12 quake, when Mr. El Zein and others began handing out high-calorie biscuits to more than 4,000 people clustered at the city’s airport, the organization has been asked to revert to their “normal” pre-earthquake programming. That consists mostly of providing school meals for children and nutrition supplements for babies, pregnant women and nursing mothers.
Final deliveries of the free sacks of rice, flour, beans, oil and salt were made by WFP trucks last week, and community leaders in camps for the internally displaced were given final notice of the abrupt program change.
Immediately, worries among local government officials and the population began to sprout over whether it’s too soon to institute such a dramatic shift in food strategy.
Thousands of people remain without homes or jobs in Jacmel. And while rubble-clearing efforts fuelled by cash-for-work programs have forged some noticeable progress on city streets, the 200 gourdes (about $5) per-day jobs have not proven to be a panacea for the stalled economy.
More cash-for-work and work-for-food positions will be created to help families bridge the difficult transition back to self-sufficiency, but they don’t yet exist. Organizations and government officials are still wrangling over details of the jobs and who will be responsible for managing them. Meanwhile, many people who still rely on food handouts for the bulk of their diets – which usually consist of just one meal per day – have no idea how they’ll make due without free food distributions in the short term.
“I don’t know what the consequences will be, but I’m sure it’s going to be a problem,” said Frantz Magellan Pierre-Louis, a spokesperson for Jacmel Mayor Edo Zenny.
At Pinchinat this week, a former school soccer field that is Jacmel’s largest camp for the internally displaced, what was once the field cooking area – a section of grass littered with small fires and piles of charcoal the cooking committee used to heat daily meals for residents – was abandoned. By mid-afternoon, when most kids would normally begin lining up for their daily bowl full of rice and beans, few people can be seen eating.
At the small independent encampment at the L’Eglise Wesleyenne the outdoor kitchen hasn’t been used this week. Although the cooking committee had been carefully maintaining an emergency store of rice and beans for fear the food supply would end, they have no oil with which to cook.
Midi Jackson, the camp spokesman, said no one has come to the camp from any organization to talk about what they should do in the short term. On his own, he’s been advising families to try to raise a bit of money from friends with means, and fend for themselves.
At the WFP, officials are optimistic that early bumps that have accompanied the food shift will soon be smoothed out. Plans are in the works to establish programs that boost local agriculture and support local markets. Some are only days away from implementation.
Before the earthquake, the organization had established a small footprint in Jacmel with a small food-for-work program, a school-feeding schedule for 57,000 students across the country’s south-eastern department, and a health and nutrition program to prevent malnourishment among 10,500 mostly rural young and female beneficiaries.
Mr. El Zein said he feels the goodwill that the WFP built up through that work will hold the organization in good stead while the current kinks are worked out.
“It’s a huge step to get the people to understand that, yes, free food has stopped but normal projects have continued plus we’re doing cash for work,” he said, adding: “We made very good relations with the people. They know us. The trust that the food will be there in the schools.
“If we hadn’t made these relations with the people … you would find 2,000 people at the gate,” he said, gesturing to the solid steel gate that secures the WFP’s walled Jacmel compound, which is patrolled by shotgun toting guards. “People know there is food in here.”