To feed the hungry, send lawyers.

Wednesday brought news the U.N.’s World Food Program needs $84 million to prevent malnutrition and death in Haiti. El Niño has left farmers without the water they need for their crops. When the rain comes, it comes in torrents leaving houses and fields destroyed. Subsistence farmers never live large as it is. They have few if any reserves to sustain them if crops fail. Haitians who usually sell food to pay for shelter, healthcare, and schooling will be forced to buy food. Hunger forces them to sell whatever goods and tools they have making it even harder for them to feed themselves in the future. This crisis is real and urgent.

The food crisis unfolds at the same time as an ongoing political crisis. Due to protests against the fraud and violence which marred the first round of the presidential elections, the final round has been delayed. Martelly has left power. The transition offers both a chance for better elections and the risk of chaos. Paramilitary groups have marched in Port-au-Prince. We have seen violence in the streets alongside the peaceful protests. The headlines in the US have not been good.

Anyone familiar with the darker side of the international community’s relationship with Haiti will be suspicious of the U.N.’s call for aid. Is it an attempt to distract international attention from the political crisis? Whose interests does it serve? Skeptics hear echoes of the American Plan described so well by Timothy Schwartz in Travesty in Haiti. Food aid will import foreign food with the aid money. It might feed people and undermine the market for the farmers. Haiti could be less able to feed itself after El Niño has passed than it was before. This cycle isn’t inevitable, but it benefits powerful agricultural interests. A market is a market for American rice, whether it’s sold on the street or given away as food aid. We should be uneasy.

Is there a better way? What could leave Haitians better able to feed themselves? Rights. The Haitian constitution requires the government to provide short-term assistance during catastrophic food shortages. Haitians have a right to their food. They shouldn’t depend on benevolent donors (or worse). The aid should flow through their elected officials. Their accountability to the voters would give the government an incentive to do what the U.N. and foreign donors haven’t been able to do: provide for long-term food security. If the government must pay every time crops fail, they have an incentive to invest in the infrastructure to make food shortages rare. BAI/IJDH helps farmers claim their rights. (Watch a video they sent of a protest in the Central Plateau here.) If they are successful, we will create a system to feed Haitians for years to come. Rights can feed people.

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