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World Food Program's Jean-Martin Bauer on Haiti's growing starvation


Haiti's Prime Minister, Ariel Henry, has announced he will resign - not that, realistically, he could have continued to lead. He's been traveling, has not been able to reenter the country. And street gangs now control much of the capital. Violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti and escalated a humanitarian crisis. Millions were already suffering from hunger. Well, joining us from Haiti from the northern city of Cap-Haitien is John Martin-Bauer. He directs the World Food Programme in Haiti. Hey there.


KELLY: Hi. I gather we have reached you in a warehouse. Would you tell me what kind of warehouse, what you're doing, what you see?

MARTIN-BAUER: I'm at the World Food Programme's warehouse in Cap-Haitien. It's a place where we store the food before it's distributed. We have all types of commodities in here, mostly grain, beans. We also have a lot of locally purchased commodities at the moment.

KELLY: What does that mean, locally purchased commodities - like what?

MARTIN-BAUER: Well, for example, we just bought 95 tons of local sorghum. It's called pitimi millet here in Haiti. It's one of the local crops. And by doing these purchases, we help Haitian farmers access the market, earn money. And we're also helping the country develop its agriculture.

KELLY: And is the warehouse full? I mean, we're hearing that people are starving.

MARTIN-BAUER: We have trucks here being loaded as I speak, where programs are still operational in the north of Haiti. And, indeed, Haiti is going through a severe food crisis. It's been a long-term food crisis. In fact, since 2020, since COVID, at least 4 million people in Haiti have been acutely food insecure. And right now out of those 4 million, 1 million are one step away from famine.

KELLY: So when you walk around the city, as you make your way through Cap-Haitien, paint me a picture of what it is like. Are shops open? Are restaurants open? Are people able to move around?

MARTIN-BAUER: Cap-Haitien is quieter than usual, but there is a fairly normal level of activity. I'm seeing children go to school. Clinics are open. Some of the shops are open. The airport is closed, and it's quiet. It's one of the busiest places in the city. There's always quite a traffic jam to turn into the airport. And that's because there haven't been flights for a week. Cap-Haitien doesn't feel like itself.

KELLY: What reports do you have from the capital, from Port-au-Prince? What do you know of the situation there?

MARTIN-BAUER: The weekend was extremely harsh with fighting in downtown Port-au-Prince, including in Champs de Mars, which is the heart of the city with a lot of the ministries. The symbols of sovereignty in Haiti are down there. Over the past 24 hours, it has been a relative calm. However, my team in Port-au-Prince are still sheltering in place. We're being very cautious with security because it has been a very difficult couple of weeks.

KELLY: And does your team in Port-au-Prince have food, have supplies that they are hoping to be able to distribute?

MARTIN-BAUER: So Port-au-Prince right now is a bubble. There's no coming in or going out. We are doing everything we can to support the displaced population of Port-au-Prince. There are about a hundred thousand people who are displaced on sites in Port-au-Prince. So what we are doing is we're providing a hot meal a day to about 13,000 people. We're able to do that because we have stocks in Port-au-Prince. But as soon as they run out, well, we can't replenish our stocks. The port is closed. The roads in and out of Port-au-Prince are controlled by armed groups. The airport is closed. So right now we're using the resources we have on hand, but we're going to need more.

KELLY: I mean, sadly, the headlines out of Haiti have been desperate for years now. You could go back to the assassination of the president and the crisis in 2021. You could go back to the catastrophic earthquake in 2010. You could go back beyond that. Does this moment feel different to people in Haiti? Does it feel more urgent?

MARTIN-BAUER: To the people I talked to, this feels unprecedented. It's a scenario that Haiti hasn't really gone through before. Of course, there was the news of the prime minister's stepping down, and there's hope that that would bring us back closer to normality.

KELLY: What would you need first? As this country tries to piece together something like a new government or some kind of transitional governing body, what do you need first?

MARTIN-BAUER: We need security first of all, first and foremost because it's dangerous to go out and help the population. We also need a recognition of the link between conflict and hunger in a place like Haiti. We all know that mass hunger can be a breeding ground for conflict, for civil strife. It can also be a breeding ground for mass migration. We also need a strong social and humanitarian component to what we do, and that needs to be funded. Humanitarian issues deserve the same attention as security issues in Haiti. If we don't address humanitarian issues, we won't be able to find peace. A Haiti with half of its population starving won't be a country at peace.

KELLY: John Martin-Bauer, World Food Programme country director for Haiti, speaking with us from one of their warehouses in the city of Cap-Haitien. Thank you.

MARTIN-BAUER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.