Sign up today to join our online community, receive email alerts, and make a difference!

Feeding Haiti's future

Guy Gauvreau argues that providing meals at school is the most efficient way to ensure economic and social development - the only way to create sustainable peace and stability in a country like Haiti.

Guy Gauvreau argues that providing meals at school is the most efficient way to ensure economic and social development - the only way to create sustainable peace and stability in a country like Haiti.

At least once a day, Dideline Lafleur can be sure to have a meal.

That's because she has lunch at the "Ecole Presbyterale St Vincent de Paul", in the slum area of Nan Bannan on the outskirts of the northern coastal city of Cap Haitien.

The Ecole Presbyterale St Vincent de Paul has been part of the United Nations World Food Programme's school feeding programme since June 2000, and for Dideline and her 211 fellow students, this means access to one healthy, nutritious meal per day.

Many of the parents in this poor neighborhood simply do not have the means to feed their children - as is the case for Dideline, a seven-year old second grader. She has five sisters and three brothers. Her father is unemployed. Her mother, who runs a small street shop, is thus the sole provider for the whole family.

At the World Food Programme, we believe that providing a nutritious meal at school is a simple and cheap way to not only getting a poor child into school but also giving her a chance to learn and thrive. And we believe that it is the most effective investment to create literate self-reliant and healthy societies and hence the most efficient way to ensure economic and social development.

This is the only way to create sustainable peace and stability in a country like Haiti, marred by 200 years of misrule, and now the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

In January, Haiti's foreign minister, Yvon Simeon, addressing the UN Security Council in New York, said his country was at "the edge of the abyss" and appealed to donors to honour the pledges they made in 2004.

This week, Security Council members will get the chance to see for themselves just how important this is, when they spend three days in Haiti to assess security, the political situation, the economy and, perhaps most important of all, the state of Haitian society.

They probably won't get to talk to Dideline, but there's a chance they might meet some of the 150,000 Haitian children who receive WFP school feeding, any one of whom could tell them what a difference it makes to their lives.

Getting a Haitian child into school - and keeping her there - with a school lunch or snack costs about 30 US cents per day per student - a remarkably modest investment compared to the returns. The aim is to bring up a new generation of better nourished and better educated children. And hence a generation of thinking, questioning but also contributing members of society.

The question is whether we can afford not to make this investment. It just takes a quick glance at the sad statistics for Haiti to have the answer to that question.

Haiti ranks 153 out of 177 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index (2004). 76% of Haitians live on less than US$2 per day, while 55% live on less than one US dollar per day. Malnutrition is widespread, with severe or moderate stunting affecting 42 percent of children under five. Each year, an estimated 38,000 Haitian children between the age of 0 and 5 die - almost one out of three because of malnutrition.

This means that every single hour a Haitian child dies before reaching the age of five, simply because he or she does not have enough to eat.

There can be no doubt that the underlying social and economic ills are the basis for the anger, frustration and distilled despair that today drive a lot of Haitians to use weapons and violence as their only means of communication.

When regional defence ministers met in Quito, Ecuador, in November last year, they actually placed poverty ahead of terrorism as a security threat. Their Quito Declaration warned that "extreme poverty and the social exclusion of broad sectors of the population affect stability and democracy, erode social cohesion and threaten the security of states."

For WFP, the way to fight the security threat in Haiti begins with the poor children. In other words, stability starts in the schools. By teaching a child how to read and write, you give her other means of communication than weapons. And you also give her a chance of to reject the rhetoric spurring violence that all too often attracts people with no real hope.

Haiti's children must be the building blocks for its future. There is no better way to secure a brighter future for the country than by investing in them. Giving food to poor children is giving them not only healthy bodies but also healthy minds.