Haiti

With seeds, water and 'plastic' UN helps Haiti offset hurricanes, food prices

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With a packet of seeds, a stream of water and a prepaid remittance card the United Nations is racing against the clock to help Haiti recover from the triple whammy of four successive hurricanes, soaring food prices and the impact of the global economic downturn.

"More crop failure will mean even more hunger, and to avoid that Haiti must get its agriculture sector swiftly back on its feet," the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) said today in a review of its latest projects for the impoverished Caribbean nation.

"Smallholder farmers who had little to live on relied on relatives abroad for small sums of money. But the global economic downturn means remittances from expatriate Haitians are also at risk. Now it is a battle against time."

IFAD is working with the rural poor on two key challenges - boosting agricultural production and supporting remittance programmes - with simple yet innovative solutions: a bag of seeds and a card that cuts the costs of sending cash home.

Over 240,000 smallholders are receiving a package of vegetable seeds, cereal seeds, manioc, sweet potato and banana plants under a $10.2 million programme to help farmers start planting again and ensure more food in the local markets.

The most recent project before this has been a $27 million project to rehabilitate collective irrigation systems used by thousands of poor small farmers in two of the country's poorest areas, the North-East and North-West provinces.

"Haiti's agricultural potential remains extraordinary, despite wide deforestation and soil erosion. If we can just get water to the small farming plots, which are widely spread out, then even without fertilizers farmers can significantly boost yields to three harvests per year," IFAD Country Programme Manager Anna Pietikainen said.

The project will help 18,000 families in remote areas by allowing small farmers to grow a greater range of crops and boost output through better water management.

On the 'plastic' side, IFAD is stepping up support for an innovative project for an integrated pre-paid remittance card in the United States, where the Haitian diaspora has long been a lifeline for their compatriots back home, far exceeding foreign direct investment or development aid and reaching poor people in isolated areas.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, after years of double digit growth, the value of remittances from the US to Latin America and the Caribbean will this year decrease for the first time because of the economic downturn.

The card works on the Visa circuit, costs just $1 dollar a month to run, allows the owner's employer to directly deposit funds without charge and will allow the cardholder to deposit funds into Fonkoze 'investment accounts' of families in rural areas of Haiti.

Fonkoze (shoulder to shoulder in Creole) serves those without bank accounts by providing loans for small businesses, savings products tailored to poor people, currency exchange services at preferential rates, low-cost money transfer services, and literacy and business skills training.

Money from these funds is made available in micro-loans for rural community projects. IFAD has financed seven such projects with approved loans totalling $84.3 million and has provided $2.2 million in grant support to local organizations.