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Why Haiti must stay on the CSR agenda

18-Jan-2010
Last updated the 21-Jan-2010 at 12:58 GMT

50,000 and counting. We'll probably never know exactly how many perished in the 7.0 earthquake that brought Haiti, quite literally, crashing down last Tuesday, 12th January 2010, just before 5pm. But for those who survived and who make it through the hard days, weeks and months ahead, getting enough to eat will be a long term challenge.

Big multinational food corporations have already made generous donations. Walmart has given $600,000 to the Red Cross, plus $100,000 in pre-packaged food kits. Coca Cola has raised $1 million. Unilever $500,000.

It is easy to imagine the pot of cash sequestered away somewhere in the depths of these companies’ CSR strategies labelled ‘crack open in an emergency only’.

To the cynical, CSR exists to buff up a company’s corporate image and prime parts of the world that might one day bring good business.

Now is no time for cynicism. Make no mistake, every penny counts; every food product, every vitamin pill. If you were to ask any one of the 2 million people in need of urgent help in Haiti, they would all say they don’t care who is paying for it. Just bring help. Quickly.

All applause to the companies prepared to crack open the emergency pot for Haiti. If there's a corporate agenda sitting alongside the charitable one, who cares? Bring on the aid.

But Haiti will vanish from news headlines long before the buildings, infrastructure and lives can be rebuilt. The generous hand-outs in the wake of the disaster will be quickly consumed.

What then?

The long haul

Even before last Tuesday, Haiti was the most malnourished country in the western hemisphere, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It was recently rocked by rioting when food prices spiralled upwards in 2008; as a country that has imported 80 per cent of its food in recent years, the scars caused by the sharp rise in commodity rises had not yet healed.

Getting enough nutritious food is going to be even more of a challenge in the coming months and years. The infrastructure that brought imports and distributed them around the country no longer exists. Rural areas where the land is degraded and poor will need to feed even more people, as city-folk flee the rubble and seek hospitality from friends and family in the country.

The FAO is calling for $23 million in aid for agriculture in Haiti, as part of the United Nation’s call from $562m in total. It points out that the next sowing season starts in March, and if farmers cannot get the tools, water, seeds, fertiliser, and infrastructure set up to produce and distribute food over the coming months, the human disaster will grow.

Like the FAO, food companies must look beyond the immediate. True responsibility is not just about a one-off hand-out to help meet immediate needs, while the world is still weeping for the cruel loss of life and livelihood. It’s about stepping up to the plate with long term aid, once the cameras and column inches have moved on to some other unlucky region.

If CSR is to stand up to the cynics, it has to be truly responsible, regardless whether Haiti could ever be a key strategic market. Regardless of whether actions are applauded or ignored.

It's time for food companies to cast a new pot, and stick a label on it marked 'Haiti's future'.

Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past twelve years she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States.

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