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Growing Food Crisis Strains U.N.

Students eat in a classroom of Hands Together, a nonprofit that works to help poor people in Haiti, in the slum of Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince.
Students eat in a classroom of Hands Together, a nonprofit that works to help poor people in Haiti, in the slum of Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince. (By Ariana Cubillos -- Associated Press)
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By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

UNITED NATIONS -- For four years, U.N. peacekeepers have protected Haiti's fragile government from attacks by street gangs, drug lords and political agitators. But they were no match for a bowl of rice that has doubled in price during the past year.

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Thousands of demonstrators last month rampaged through the streets of Haiti's main cities, protesting the high cost of living in a spree of violence that toppled the prime minister and set the stage for the country's worst political crisis in more than a year.

"If people are hungry, they have no stake in stability," said Hedi Annabi, the U.N. special representative in Haiti, in a telephone interview from Port-au-Prince. "They will be ready for anything -- for anarchy -- because they have nothing to safeguard or to fight for."

The Haitian experience has been playing out around the world. Food protests and riots have erupted in more than 30 countries, bringing unrest in places as diverse as Bolivia, Burma, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan and Senegal. The unrest has placed strains on U.N. peacekeepers and relief workers, who provide security and lifesaving assistance where the crisis has hit most severely. Some U.N. relief planners have raised concern about the organization's capacity to cope with an increase in the world's chronically hungry, to more than 850 million.

"We are anticipating some significant increase in the numbers of people who are going to be hungry, malnourished and at risk of getting sick and dying during the next months," said David Nabarro, deputy coordinator of a U.N. task force that is managing the international response to the food crisis. "For most poor people, they don't have the option of protesting: They have to cope with the situation," either by eating less or by doing without vital services such as medical care and schooling.

The World Food Program has been forced in recent months to temporarily suspend food-delivery programs in Haiti, Burkina Faso and Mozambique. U.N. efforts to feed the hungry in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Somalia have been undermined by armed groups intent on stealing the food or preventing food convoys from feeding the neediest.

In Afghanistan, more than 30 WFP trucks in the past year have been commandeered, robbed or burned to the ground, sending food for thousands of people into flames. On May 17, a convoy of 79 commercial trucks loaded with food was attacked on the road from Kandahar to Herat and Nimroz. A week earlier, a commercial truck carrying 48 tons of wheat disappeared along the same route.

"These attacks are preventing food from reaching Afghanistan's poorest, most vulnerable communities with lifesaving food assistance," said Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. Siddique said the situation is exacerbated by scarce rainfall, political conflict and the prospects of crop losses because of drought.

Officials from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said that most food prices may have crested but that costs will remain at historically high levels for the foreseeable future, heightening the threat of political instability. "In some cases, U.N. stabilization efforts could be undermined, peacekeeping missions come under pressure to support Government efforts to quell riots," and U.N. staff and warehouses could become targets, FAO Assistant Director-General José María Sumpsi Viñas warned in a recent article for a NATO magazine.

Analysts warn of the security implications of managing population growth when access to food, water and energy are growing increasingly tight. "This could easily trigger violence in slums, attacks on immigrants, forced movements of populations, intensification of interethnic violent conflict," said Jeffrey D. Sachs, a Columbia University economist and U.N. adviser.

Sachs said that the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan -- which has driven more than 2 million civilians from their homes and killed as many as 450,000 -- underscores the human costs of dwindling natural resources. "Climate change, water scarcity, demographic stress are the underlying challenge," he said.

The U.N. response in Darfur has been hampered by bandits and militia members, who have targeted U.N. vehicles for resale or to secure communications equipments and transport for rebel groups. Attacks prompted the WFP last month to cut delivery of food rations by half, imposing more hardships on a population already facing high prices.

Nancy Roman, WFP director of policy planning and communications, said in an e-mail that conflict has placed far more pressure on the organization's operations than the food price spikes. But she said food riots have forced WFP to restrict staff movement and temporarily suspend operations "during sporadic protests over high food and fuel prices in those countries where such protests turned violent."

Phil Dobie, a Nairobi-based spokesman for the U.N. Development Program, said his agency is bracing for food shortages in the coming months. Scarce rainfall and post-electoral violence in Kenya are aggravating the situation.

"A country like Kenya will probably keep the lid on it because it has sufficient resources, and they will be able to bring enough food in," Dobie said. But "if I were a politician, I would want to know what's happening in Nairobi's slums if prices go up. Urban food riots have frequently unseated governments."

Dobie said that situation is worse in states with weak central governments, particularly Somalia. The United Nations is already struggling to avert a famine in Somalia and is feeding more than 2.7 million. "What is of major concern is the thought that the entire emergency food system may not be able to cope," according to an internal U.N. paper.

John Holmes, chairman of the U.N. food task force, has struck a more optimistic note, saying current difficulties can be solved. "They're not easily fixable, perhaps, but they are fixable in terms of increasing agricultural production in the world, tackling issues like biofuels, trying to get a more sensible agricultural trade regime in place," Holmes said.

But in Haiti, where nearly 80 percent of the population lives on $2 a day, it will take more than markets and trade agreements, according to U.N. officials. They said the crisis emerged from a volatile mix of food, politics and organized crime, with political opponents and armed gangs infiltrating the food protests to weaken the government. They organized attacks on U.N. facilities and opened fire on U.N. peacekeepers. "The demonstrations were infiltrated by all kind of groups . . . who had an interest in creating a situation that would lead to the fall of the government," said Annabi, the U.N. representative in Haiti.


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