Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Free Rice

A few years ago someone sent me the link to the website Free Rice and when my mind would wonder on slow days at work, I would amuse myself by testing my knowledge of the English language. For each correct vocabulary answer the site donates 10 grains of rice to the U.N. World Food Programme so I could at least rationalize the distraction as a humanitarian one. Now I wonder.

Reports from Haiti indicate that the free rice model may not be the best use of foreign aid. Rice is a staple crop in Haiti and parts of the country that were unaffected by the earthquake are now suffering the consequences of free imported rice, which means less money to send children to school. NPR's Planet Money has been telling this story and admits that it's not a black and white issue. Some farmers up north are glad that Haitians are getting much needed food but local vendors are suffering. Additionally, the earthquake has brought attention to an issue that Haiti has been dealing with for more than a decade: that imported American rice typically undersells Haitian rice. Another Plant Money podcast explains why.

The situation boils down to this: should farmers use the food they grow to feed their families or to make enough money to send their kids to school? It reminds me of my trip to Guatemala last year where I saw this same situation firsthand. But it took a natural disaster to bring the spotlight to Guatemala too. Are earthquakes and tropical storms the wake-up calls we need to address the basic human needs of families forced to decide daily between education and hunger?

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