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Haiti: black market in food aid emerges

In Haiti's capital, street vendors are openly selling rice by the cup from bags stamped with US flags.

By Mica RosenbergReuters / February 4, 2010

A US soldier helps a woman carry a bag of rice during a distribution of food in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday.

Eliana Aponte/Reuters

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti

Blocks from where US and UN soldiers distribute sacks of rice to Haitian women in earthquake-shattered Port-au-Prince, street vendors are openly selling rice by the cup from bags stamped with US flags.

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In the early days after the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed up to 200,000 people and left more than a million homeless, food handouts were often chaotic in the capital. On a couple of occasions, U.N. soldiers fired tear gas into hungry crowds jostling for a limited amount of goods.

To ensure a more orderly distribution where food gets to families who need it, international donors last weekend began a system where soldiers hand out 55-pound bags of rice to women only in exchange for ration cards.

Food handouts have become calmer, but the new policy has not stopped badly needed food aid from falling into the hands of black-market sellers.

In one Port-au-Prince neighborhood where 12,000 people live in tents made of bedsheets in a valley below their collapsed hillside slum, vendors at makeshift stands sell cups of rice from food-aid bags for about 22 gourdes (55 cents) each.

Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said it was inevitable some of the aid would end up being sold.
“It is too early to say how much ends up on the black market. We never like to see it happen. The object of this scale-up is far-reaching to help stabilize the food situation in the city,” Prior told Reuters.

Selling ration cards

But some seeking food from the new distribution system do not know how to get it.

“No food has come here. We know they are using the cards but we don’t know how to find the cards,” said Losin Fritz, a community leader for about 4,500 people living in threadbare tents made from sticks and ripped, clear plastic.

“We will have to make the cards ourselves and take them over there,” Fritz said, pointing down the street where a military convoy had just handed out rice to hundreds of people with coupons.

For two weeks, the World Food Program will give out only rice, deciding later whether to add other other staples like beans, cooking oil and salt.
International aid groups say they are learning from mistakes made in earlier food handouts when stronger men could push aside women and the elderly to grab the goods first.

Now the coupons are given only to women, and community leaders decide who will have priority. But some are taking advantage of cracks in the system.
A protest erupted Wednesday after people complained some groups were selling the coupons for 50 gourdes each ($1.24).

“Only (the leaders’) friends get the cards and we don’t have any money to buy the rice at the market,” said Peter Princius, an old man living in a sparse camp on the outskirts of the Cite Soleil slum, largely controlled by gangs before the earthquake. “And we are hungry.”
(Editing by Peter Cooney)