As overlapping crises disrupt daily life in Haiti, the number of people in need of urgent food aid is surging, according to the United Nations.
The organization reports that 4.4 million people are food insecure in the country, including 1.9 million children. Most alarmingly, an estimated 86,000 children under the age of five face severe acute malnutrition this year, up from 41,000 the year before. Severe acute malnutrition, when not urgently addressed, can cause a child to die. UNICEF reports that another 217,000 children face acute malnutrition, a state that leaves them vulnerable to stunting.
“Severe acute malnutrition can and should be treated right now to save children’s lives in Haiti,” said Jean Gough, UNICEF regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, in a statement. “We can’t look the other way and ignore one of the least funded humanitarian crises in the region. Without additional, urgent funding in the next few weeks, the life-saving treatment we are providing against malnutrition will be discontinued and some children will be at risk of dying.”
Haiti has been beset by the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, political turmoil, climate change, and longstanding fallout from humanitarian disasters.
The country has seen a spike in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations over the past few weeks even as it struggles to obtain vaccines due to ongoing vaccine inequity. As government health care workers, alongside groups such as Zanmi Lasante, struggle to provide assistance, uncertainty continues to destabilize the country’s political system. For more than a year, citizens have been protesting President Jovenele Moise’s attempt to consolidate power after bypassing democratic elections in 2019.
These disruptions have deepened the island’s economic woes. In 2019, the economy shrunk by 1.9% largely due to political instability and fuel shortages, while the pandemic caused it to shrink a further 3.8% in 2020, according to the Haitian Times. Remittances — money sent by people abroad to family members and communities — from the United States and elsewhere now account for a third of the nation’s economy and inflation is making it harder to buy basic goods.
Farmers have seen their yields diminish in recent years due to the climate shocks such as drought and rising temperatures, which has further limited access to food.
“Our crops suffer from the lack of rainfall and livestock are dying due to lack of fodder, access to health care, and access to water,” Apelus Setout, a farmer in Kaletan, a village in Jean Rabel, told Action Against Hunger. “The last planting seasons could not be completed due to insufficient of seeds that are available in other areas difficult to access because of the bad condition of road and the costs for travel.”
In the backdrop of these more recent crises, decades of political mismanagement have impoverished the population, leaving more than two-thirds of people without access to water and sanitation and half of people undernourished. The country is still coping with damage from the catastrophic earthquake of 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
UNICEF is calling for $48.9 million to support 1.5 million people, including more than 700,000 children, with food aid. The UN agency reports that its program in Haiti “has remained almost completely underfunded.”
With funding, UNICEF is able to provide lifesaving nutrition and medicine to children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Without funding, the risk that these children will die increases.
“In an environment as precarious as Haiti, every child’s life we save today can be in danger again tomorrow.” said Gough. “Unless we move beyond just treating malnutrition — to preventing it before it strikes.”