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MIT Professor Fights Famine with Relief Missions to Haiti

S. Yung

Hunger in Haiti is a problem created by conditions within the nation and made only more difficult by a trade embargo which bars transportation of many goods to the Caribbean island nation. One MIT professor has found an unusual way to fight the shortage of food there, however.

Over the past year, Professor of Nuclear Engineering Ronald G. Ballinger ScD '82 has traveled to Haiti several times to distribute food to a local orphanage in Bonyotte, a one-hour drive from Port-au-Prince. About 50 children, all under the age of 10, depend on the periodic shipments of food from Ballinger and others.

Ballinger, a board member of Bless the Children of Haiti Inc., a non-profit organization, has helped arrange transportation and distribution of food to the orphanage as part of the Child Sponsorship Program. Bless the Children of Haiti also helps sponsor the orphanage, provide medical assistance, and aid in job training.

Roughly a year ago, Bless the Children of Haiti found that conventional shipping methods could not ensure that all of the food would find its way to the orphanage.

"Shipping food over to the orphanage is very unreliable since the majority of the population is in need of help. There exists no general relief in Haiti and it is difficult to blame the population for taking our food supplies before they reach their destination," said Ballinger. In order to ensure that the organization's supplies reach the orphanage, Ballinger is currently using another channel of transportation -- himself.

"I make full use of the baggage weight allowance permitted by the airlines and bring only a small bag for my personal items," Ballinger said. "We have to convince customs officials that our supplies are humanitarian aid and must accompany the food all the way, so that the food does reach the children," he added.

"The customs officials are especially restrictive regarding foreign food supplies. We sometimes need to give them special `gifts' to allow the entry of our supplies," Ballinger said.

"The tense social and political conditions found in Haiti are also not helping us," Ballinger said. Having returned from Haiti just two weeks ago, Ballinger noted that this tension can be seen in the capital. "There are no boats in the harbor like other Caribbean islands and the supply of electricity is limited to six hours for each of the city's sections. There is no electricity outside the city," Ballinger said.

Not willing to take any unnecessary risks on his most recent visit, Ballinger stayed in a Port-au-Prince hotel within running distance of the city's airport.

"During my stay at the hotel with the other members of the organization, I felt our group was constantly followed by two agents around the hotel and whenever we stopped to talk with some local people," he said.

"In general, I feel that the people are afraid to speak out, for no one is sure who is actually their friend." Ballinger's impression of being followed around was confirmed when he tried to take pictures of a parade; agents promptly appeared and warned him that photographs were not allowed.

Despite difficulties, Ballinger finds his work in Haiti to be very gratifying in the same manner as doing research in nuclear engineering. "After retiring, I plan on becoming a missionary," he said.

"The disparity between the rich and the poor can be especially seen in Haiti," Ballinger said. "During this last trip, I saw a little girl with a cup collecting the dripping soap from a person washing a brand-new white Mercedes. The life of the rich continues to be the same if not better, but the poor are only becoming poorer."

Ballinger, who has been to Haiti three times over the past 12 months, plans to make another trip to the orphanage soon. "If anyone is interested, just contact me in the nuclear engineering department," he said.