It’s been over four months since the earthquake, and the clean-up continues. While many of the main roads have been cleared for months, in the tightly packed Port-au-Prince neighborhoods that these roads don’t reach, rubble still fills the streets. And that’s where the Cash for Work programs come in. Local Haitians are hired to do work in the communities they live in, and they are paid a wage that was approved by the government. The daily wage for a Cash for Work employee is 200 goudes, which is about $5 a day, Haiti’s minimum wage. This was done so that workers are not paid too much, or too little.
There are obvious issues with not paying workers enough, but there are not-so-obvious issues when you pay them too much. For instance, according to Jillian, because the Cash for Work employees’ daily salary is consistent country-wide, local farmers in the country-side are having problems competing with wages that were set for city-living. It’s hard to hire workers for the same amount of money you were paying them before the earthquake when they can now work for one of these programs and get 50 goudes more a day. This effectively raises the wages of everyone where the cost of living is much lower, which hurts small businesses and farms who need employees.
But for all the issues surround Cash for Work, the program is an extremely effective way to clear the rubble and create employment for locals. World Concern has over 2,000 Haitians employed through their Cash for Work program, and sometimes it’s grizzly business. The day we went on the visit above, their crews uncovered the body of a 6-year-old boy who had been walking home from school when the earthquake hit. They showed us his remains, which were nothing but a pile of bones and decomposed clothes. They had yet to find the boy’s head, and were still searching for the remains of the boy’s father, who was with him when the buildings collapsed around them.
So there’s no doubt that their job is tough. Any job that requires having body-bags on site is, to me, incredibly intense. Just the idea of clearing out all this rubble seems ridiculously daunting. The piles of rubble seem mountainous, and at times you are standing on piles of rubble the size of a football field.
On our site visit, we snaked through the narrow corridors between buildings, and jumping from house to house over rooftops. But after descending through a random stairwell to the ground level, it’s eerily claustrophobic walking through these neighborhoods. If there was another earthquake while you were in these hallways, there is almost no where for you to run.
But they continue their work, sometimes 6 days a week, breaking rubble with sledgehammers, pickaxes and shovels, and moving it to the streets. It’s hard labor that many of us would not be able to handle. I spoke to one worker who admitted it was tough, but loved his job, “If I didn’t have this work, I’d be doing nothing,” he said. In a country where many piece together their yearly incomes with a variety of different jobs, a consistent paycheck is pure gold.
So while the recovery for many in the foreign development community is long-term and abstract, for these people, it’s much simpler. They wake up, pour their sweat and tears into long days moving rubble, and then go home to prepare for another. For the NGOs doing this work, recovery is done grant-by-grant, but for the Haitians in the Cash for Work programs, it’s done bucket-by-bucket.
One my way back from the site visit, I asked the World Concern translator where he saw the country a year from now. Maybe that was an unfair question when uncertainty seems to constantly fill the air here, but considering the slow progress of clearing out the destruction of the earthquake, I wanted to know if he thought the clean-up would be complete by January 12, 2011. “I don’t know, maybe, but probably not…” he responded. “Unless the government steps up this is going to be a problem for a long time,” he explained.
So while organization like World Concern continue to help in the recovery and clean-up, the people are still hopeful that these problems can be dealt with on their own. The government has been slow to act on almost all counts. On Friday, President Preval finally called a meeting with NGOs to figure out a plan to relocate those camped out in front of the Presidential Palace. It has been four months since the earthquake, and the #1 camp on the priority list is finally being address, leaving hundreds more camps to be dealt with still. The rainy season has begun, and the government is still behind the ball.
And this frustration has already percolated to the brim, with large protests against President Preval becoming an almost daily occurrence. Protests have gone from peaceful demonstrations to violent gatherings, with tear gas and gun shots accompanying calls for action. I don’t blame them, I would be angry too. These NGOs should not be acting as the government, they should be assisting a strong leadership that, right now, this country is sorely lacking.
While I write these things, the general feel around the capital is not one of fear and danger, but it’s quickly approaching a breaking point. The rains continue almost every night, and for many, their lives just get worse and worse. It’s just a matter of time before their desperation leads to a sense of unstableness in a place that has already lacked it for years.
I pray that things turn around, and that those stranded in tent camps are helped before the newest deadline of the impending hurricane season arrives. The problem is that Haitians deserve so much better, not necessarily from the NGOs, but from their own government. Because if the government can’t help its people when the only direction they can go is up, then there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for them to be around at all, and the scary thing is that I think the people are quickly realizing that.