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Barely getting by in Port-au-Prince

Haiti, February 2, 2010

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It seems like everyone in Haiti is selling something: bananas, flip flops, sugar cane, hub caps — you name it and it’s for sale. Street vendors are ubiquitous. They line the streets and cover almost every square inch of open space in shantytowns and camps. Nowadays they’re often situated atop piles of rubble.

Haiti’s formal economy is almost nonexistent; the Haitian unemployment rate is estimated at 70-80 percent. But the informal economy is vast, and vendors like those I saw in Port-au-Prince today are its backbone.

I talked with our country director Bill Holbrook about this situation. “These vendors,” he said gesturing toward a woman selling tangerines and a teenager selling juice. “This is subsistence; they’re barely getting by. If a woman has six mangos, she’ll keep two for her family and sell four just to make it until the next day.”

“If you asked 100 of these people if they’d rather have a meaningful job with a future, 95 of them would say yes,” Bill added.

Jobs — real jobs — are the elusive key to Haiti’s future. Jobs require private-sector investors willing to take a chance on Haiti. In a country where many people are unskilled and illiterate, they also require substantial investments in training and education.

But there’s nothing Haitians want more than work. We see this when we go into camps advertising cash-for-work programs. People are eager to participate and get some money in their pockets, even if the work is something as simple as cleaning up debris in the camps where they live.

Helping to create long-term jobs, especially in the areas outside of Port-au-Prince, is one of Mercy Corps’ highest priorities. We’re exploring how to do that now; we’re confident that sectors like agriculture, apparel manufacturing and construction can thrive here.

We don’t have all the answers but one thing is for sure: Haitians deserve more than a lifetime of barely getting by.