Can Workfare Help Resurrect Quake-Ravaged Haiti?

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Kena Betancur / Reuters

Haitian government workers remove rubble in Port-au-Prince February 6, 2010. The 7.0 magnitude quake which struck Haiti on January 12 is estimated to have killed up to 200,000 people.

Backhoes and other rubble-removal equipment can't climb the steep hills and narrow streets of the bidonville, or slum, known as Carrefour-Feuilles in Port-au-Prince. More than a month after the Jan. 12 earthquake that ravaged Haiti, and which slammed Carrefour-Feuilles especially hard, much of the bidonville's clean-up is still being done with shovels and wheelbarrows. As pigs and billy goats forage in the debris, Patrick Massenat stares out at a concrete-smothered hillside. He recalls his 79-year-old mother, whose corpse he helped pull from the wreckage he's now helping to clear away. "It at least keeps you busy," says Massenat, 39, a local sanitation official. "Takes your mind off the pain."

Most if not all the laborers alongside Massenat — all working as part of the U.N. Development Program's cash-for-work project — lost a family member in the temblor. Nothing can erase that hurt, but they say cash-for-work has helped to ease it — not only by paying them a wage in a city where jobs collapsed along with buildings, but by making them more than just dazed and helpless bystanders in the Haiti recovery process. "Life stopped with the earthquake," says Denise Metelas, 34, sporting a blue UNDP T-shirt and baseball cap. "I feel like I'm among the living again." Massenat sees a more practical value. "Whenever there was a disaster in Haiti before," he says, "the international community never directly involved the poor. We're finally taking part in getting things done now."

To its detractors, cash-for-work is glorified street sweeping — a small-scale, feel-good scheme that helps deflect attention from how poorly the U.N. is doing with bigger, more consequential jobs like getting displaced Haitians decent shelter and sanitation facilities. But its backers say the program bears the seeds not only of a more effective rebuilding effort in Haiti, but of a new development strategy that's less about top-down, welfare-style aid and more about economy-stimulating engagement of the grassroots. "The old, more paternalistic way of doing charity was easier," says Brazilian aid worker Eliana Nicolini, a UNDP cash-for-work coordinator in Haiti who first helped bring the plan to Port-au-Prince a couple years ago. "This is different — I really believe it has longer-lasting development effects because it's the local community, not the foreign community, that's executing it."

The U.N., in fact, hopes the idea behind cash-for-work will be applied to broader efforts like earthquake-resistant building construction and more democratic community organization — especially as half a million Haitians relocate outside Port-au-Prince in the coming months. Perhaps its biggest cheerleader is former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the special U.N. envoy to Haiti, who in the 1990s championed "workfare" as a key to welfare reform. More hands-on participation in the recovery, Clinton argued recently, will give Haitians "the opportunity to, in effect, re-imagine the country." (The U.N. is also trying cash-for-work projects in developing countries like Brazil, India and South Africa.)

The Haiti cash-for-work program, which is expected to last through the spring, has employed more than 35,000 locals since it began early this month, at a cost of about $175,000 a day. (Workers earn about $4.50 a day, slightly more than Haiti's minimum wage, UNDP officials say, but not enough to siphon workers from the country's other vital economic sectors.) But the goal is 100,000 workers — a number that will require more than the $25.5 million the UNDP has so far garnered in donations and pledges for the project, which is why the agency has been bringing celebrities like Angelina Jolie and recent American Idol winners to Haiti to promote it. Participants, who have to be at least 18 years old, work six-hour shifts each day for two weeks; only one worker per family is allowed and that family has to have been affected in some way (a death, a destroyed house) by the earthquake.

Those criteria, which the UNDP insists it verifies for each hire, help prevent the program from becoming a political patronage orgy. UNDP officials say the Haitian government has been remarkably cooperative. But Haitians aren't shy about noting how thoroughly corrupt that government is. Many workers openly laud the fact that they don't need to know (or kick back to) a local machine boss to get a cash-for-work spot — "If the government were running this, I probably wouldn't have this job," says Sentelis Doassalit, 30 — and that the pay goes directly to their hands and not through a venal, lethargic Haitian bureaucracy.

In Carrefour-Feuilles, at least, cash-for-work also encourages local entrepreneurship. Much of the recyclable waste collected from the rubble there is used to make long-burning fuel bricks for cooking, manufactured with equipment workers helped design and build. The venture is an economic engine for the bidonville and a sustainable one as well, since it provides an alternative to the traditional charcoal fuel that has contributed to Haiti's vast deforestation.

Bruno Lemarquis, a UNDP director in Haiti, says the plan now is to "redirect" cash-for-work beyond clearing streets to tackling the country's drainage infrastructure, which is impossibly clogged with earthquake rubble but has to be cleared now that the rainy season is near. In the end, says Lemarquis, "cash-for-work can only be a temporary step in the recovery process. After that, Haiti and the international community have to take this approach to a broader level, especially to the private sector." It's not a panacea, but so far it's proven to be one way to keep Haiti among the living.