Dispatch From Haiti: Getting Back to Work in Port-au-Prince

BY News Desk  July 9, 2010 at 5:35 PM EST

PORT-AU-PRINCE | Renette Saintjuste stocks a dizzying mix of items for her tiny makeshift shop in the Centre Sportif Dadadou tent camp in Haiti’s capital.

Fresh eggs, dried pasta, soap, earrings and cookware are all for sale to her customers, the more than 10,000 camp inhabitants living on an AstroTurf soccer field — formerly part of an upscale Port-au-Prince sports complex.

“There are a lot of people living close together here and they all need food; they all need items,” she said.

On every sidewalk and corner of Port-au-Prince there are entrepreneurs like Saintjuste trying to make enough money to get by. Barbers cut hair on the street, mechanics repair motorcycles wherever there is room and merchants are hocking everything from water in plastic bags, to bottles of wine.

Saintjuste built the shop with tarp and wood poles just after the January earthquake, and uses the money she makes to support herself and her six children.

She borrowed small amounts of cash from friends to buy her initial inventory and paid them back with interest. Saintjuste is making more now than before the earthquake — sometimes as much as 400 Haitian Gourde, or about $10, per day.

Few formal jobs

The city is still in shambles and covered in piles of rubble, but demand for goods and services remains and is slowly increasing demand for labor.

The informal economy of small shops and businesses was the only form of employment available to most people here before the quake — USAID estimated unemployment at between 70 and 80 percent in the formal sector– and it remains so today.

In an effort to give more Haitians a way to make a salary, the United Nations is coordinating a collaborative project with a group of nonprofits called Cash for Work. The program hires people for $5 a day to do a variety of jobs, including rubble removal, hurricane preparation and other camp maintenance.

Imogen Wall, humanitarian spokesperson for the U.N. presence in Haiti, said more than 200,000 people have benefited from the program, but the work is temporary. Some people are employed on a project for just a month.

“This is a model for fast employment,” Wall said. “You need to get money back in people’s pockets as fast as possible.”

That money helps stimulate the cash economy and could be used to restart small businesses lost in the quake. The next step in the employment recovery will have to be more long-term, Wall said — training people with marketable skills such as construction or brickmaking.

Some sense of stability

Francky Andre is working for a Cash for Work program overseen by the Red Cross. He is a team leader for a hurricane preparation project at his tent camp, Mont Seminaire. On a recent morning the team carted bags of sand to the top of a steep hill the camp is built on and began constructing a barrier to divert water from pouring down through the flimsy tarps. During a cigarette break in the boiling heat, Andre said he is grateful to be in any job.

“I am very encouraged to be working again, especially because there has been little response from the government,” he said. The other 36 team members are grateful for the job as well, he said. “They are very happy to be working because it brings some continuity.”

According to Cate Oswald, mental health coordinator for Partners In Health in Haiti, that continuity is important for more than monetary reasons.

“As the months go on, the initial trauma is still on people’s minds, but it’s the stresses of this daily life that are now becoming more of an issue,” Oswald said. “When a mother, especially, doesn’t know how she will provide for her children, that daily stress can lead over time to huge [mental health] problems.”

Talea Miller is part of a NewsHour team with senior correspondent Ray Suarez in Haiti, reporting on recovery efforts six months after a devastating earthquake.