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Haiti’s Economy and the Rice Problem

Watch the excellent 15-minute Frontline segment on Haiti's economy by clicking here.

I read this really interesting tidbit the other day on NPR (Frontline and Planet Money) about Haiti’s economy.  Here’s the scoop:

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Haiti’s earthquake left the nation’s rice economy in ruins. That’s a big deal, because many Haitians eke out a living distributing and selling rice, the nation’s staple food.

First, the quake damaged the nation’s main port, disrupting the regular supply of imported rice.

Then, aid groups distributed free rice to thousands of people — who stopped buying rice from street vendors. As demand dried up, the street vendors stopped buying from small, local rice wholesalers.

That’s been a devastating blow to many vendors and small wholesalers.

One alternative some groups are considering: Rather than giving people free rice, give them money or vouchers to buy rice from local vendors.

If done right, this holds the promise of both feeding hungry people and keeping the local economy intact.

Of course, giving out money or vouchers also carries its own set of risks. Done wrong, it can send the price of rice soaring, which makes it harder for people who don’t receive aid to get enough food to eat.

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Now I’m an avid supporter of FreeRice.com which donates rice for every vocabulary question you answer correctly.  Or you can test yourself on a variety of other subjects, like art, geography, chemistry, math, and language-learning (French, Spanish, Italian, German).

So I’m just wondering now, is Free Rice essentially perpetuating poverty by donating rice to rice economies?  It seems that donating money would be the best option, as in the case of Yvrose Jean Baptiste who invested donations she received into her small business after the Haitian earthquake.  Now she has a stand at a popular market, where she sells things like corn, beer, hot sauce and vegetable oil.

Adam Davidson/NPR - Yvrose Jean Baptiste stands in her new shop.

Economics majors assemble!

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