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Rethinking aid to Haiti : An argument for work

The outpouring of charity and aid to Haiti from official government efforts to citizen micro-donations via mobile phone to volunteer web developer Crisis Camps is a powerful testament to human care and outreach in the face of suffering. Recently though I heard a story that I found quite troubling: A friend recounted that his father's long-time business in Haiti is struggling mightily now that the US government response is in full swing. This would not be so shocking post-crisis, except two of this business's core products are buckets and paint, two goods in extreme demand in country right now. The problem? Not only are donated supplies flooding the market, but companies like Home Depot are allowed to mass import their products now tariff-free, significantly undercutting the local businesses.

This is a dangerous way to kick-off the "fresh slate" that many hoped could describe Haiti during its rebirth post-crisis. Sustainability in Haiti requires that Haitians provide for themselves. As Leila Janah Chrirareth of Samasource often says, "work is at the core of human dignity". The US Government announced this week that it is moving from search and rescue operations to recovery. With that transition, we also have the opportunity to move from giving to enabling. Yes, basic help is still required and we should be providing it, but should be creating opportunities for Haitians to rebuild their country themselves.

The US government can take macro-steps to provide advantages to Haitian companies, such as subsidizing firms that employee locals, but citizens can also support Haitian job creation just as easily as mobile giving to the Red Cross. I would recommend two organizations in particular:

  • Samasource: With the simple tagline of "give work", Samasource is changing the way we think about what the very poor are capable of achieving. Samasource connects women, youth and refugees to meaningful "microwork" via the internet. They are currently establishing a digital work center in Port-au-Prince.
  • Microplace: Like Kiva, Microplace connects lenders to microfinance institutions in the developing world who in turn provide the unbanked with access to financial services. Through small loans of a few hundred dollars, small business owners and entrepreneurs have the opportunity to grow their ventures, creating in their communities. Microplace is partnering with Sevìs Finansye Fonkoze, Haiti’s “Alternative Bank for the Organized Poor" and the largest imicrofinance institution in the country. Fonkoze serves more than 150,000 Haitians with microloans, savings accounts, term deposits, remittances, and credit / life insurance.

Flickr Creative Commons credit: UN Photo

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