Haiti declared itself an independent nation-state in 1804, following a path traced by the United States of America 28 years earlier in a hemisphere that European colonists dubbed the “New World.” The time gap between Haitian and American independence around the turn of the nineteenth century is no less significant than the approximately 1000 km separating the two countries at the approach of the twenty-first century. Brute facts of history and geography suggest the differing cultural, socioeconomic, and political trajectories that are possible in a global system where nation-states aspire to sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and equality amidst the bonds of dependency and hierarchy.
Today, those differing trajectories give rise to disturbing truths and seemingly incorrigible stereotypes. The United States–large, wealthy, and powerful–styles itself “the leader of the Free World” in all matters political and economic. Haiti–small and powerless–is stigmatized not only as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, but also as a country perpetually in “crisis.” The dangers of mixing truth with stereotype notwithstanding, the contemporary Haitian crisis is real and, in large measure, it is a crisis of rural livelihood systems.
Signs of long-standing poverty and political inequality in Haiti abound; chronic malnutrition being one. During the last 30 years, per capita daily caloric intake has hovered between 1,900 and 2,100 calories–only 85 to 90 percent of the recommended daily allowance (USAID/Haiti 1995:1). Food production and distribution problems underlie malnutrition. Although Haiti is widely considered a food-deficit country, national production data are too sparse to support the claim that the deficit reflects production shortfalls. It appears that levels of food production, and access to food supplies, vary considerably among regions of rural Haiti and within them. Clearly, however, livelihood systems in much of the countryside are faltering under the burden of complex material and organizational constraints.