St. Louis-based Meds and Food For Kids, or MFK, has an ambitious plan to combat child malnutrition in Haiti. With one in five children underweight mostly because of the country’s rampant poverty, Haiti’s young continue to suffer while the country’s brain drain continues and literacy hovers at 50 percent. To that end, MFK has found a great solution for Haiti’s social ills: use local labor and resources to make a nutrition-rich peanut butter that will feed kids, create jobs and increase Haiti’s self-sufficiency.
There is one catch, however: Partners in Health (PIH), a larger and more established NGO, has a similar plan to build a peanut butter factory that promises to feed kids and create jobs.
PIH has a long track record within Haiti in the struggle against child malnutrition, especially in the country’s impoverished Central Plateau. For a decade, the organization has worked with farmers in improving agricultural practices, and in 2006, began the treatment of malnourished children with nourimanba, an enriched peanut butter product. The ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), which is peanut butter mixed with dried milk and vitamins, is effective in areas beset by famine or severe poverty because aid workers and families can store it for months, it is easy to eat and has a low water content. This year, thanks to Abbott Laboratories’ $6.5 million grant, PIH will soon open a new factory that will source peanuts from 200 local farmers. According to Abbott’s CSR site, the collaboration will increase demand for local crops and create more local jobs.
So here’s the question: does Haiti really need two large peanut butter factories? Both NGOs claim they have different targets. MFK sells its product to UNICEF, while PIH will distribute the product free to Haiti’s poor families.
A recent story on NPR suggests the competition between MFK and PIH is more about branding, funding, politics and competition than helping the people who need assistance the most. Critics of humanitarian aid will also point out that whether the peanut butter product is given away gratis, or purchased by another NGO that will also give away the food to those who need it, initiatives such as these peanut butter factories also offer more handouts than hands up. True, peanuts are a great source of nutrition and the scaling of such a product has the potential to create jobs and a market for more of Haiti’s poor. Nevertheless, the question over who really gains from this peanut butter competition is a fair one to ask.
Type “NGOs and branding” into your favorite search engine and watch the results flow in. There is a huge demand for branding by non-profits, and a marquee project with funding from a leading corporation attracts attention from more donors and, of course, more companies.
But when experts question the need for such a project, and in Haiti, they point out that the country does not need two peanut butter factories, one has to wonder who the beneficiaries truly are: the local people receiving the assistance, or those offering the help.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo courtesy MFK.