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A step forward for some, a step back for others

Haiti, September 12, 2011

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  • A step forward for some, a step back for others

This was my fifth trip to Haiti.

I first visited 20 years ago, in 1991, when Haiti’s then first democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a military coup. I was a young journalist back then working for a local television station in Miami, Florida. I’ll never forget walking through the slums of Port-au-Prince, the capital, and meeting some of the poorest of the poor in Cite Soleil. Here amidst open sewers, naked children, the flies and filth and the wretched shacks with tin roofs that were their homes -- lived some of Aristide’s most passionate supporters. They’d elected him in the hopes the former priest would be able to answer their prayers and deliver them from this living hell. A father begged me to please, please take one of his obviously malnourished children back with me to the U.S.

Not only was Cite Soleil unfortunately, still intact, but the number of others living in the capital in abject poverty and misery had grown exponentially to include hundreds of thousands of additional people – men, women and children -- who were then approaching their first year living in countless impromptu tent cities.

This was the legacy of Haiti’s January 12, 2010 earthquake.

But unlike 1991 when there was little international assistance to help Haiti’s poor, in the wake of the massive 2010 quake, Americans generously donated hundreds of millions of dollars to help those affected.

Today we’re approaching the 2nd anniversary of the quake and much of the tons of rubble that filled the streets and alleyways of Port-au-Prince has been cleared away. And while the sound of hammers doesn’t exactly fill the air, there is some construction of new office buildings underway; and in the nicer parts of town, you could even forget there had ever been an earthquake.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) which has been tracking the numbers of displaced Haitians, from July 2010 to July 2011 there has been a 61% decrease in the number of people living in camps in Port-au-Prince. Now there are 594,811 Haitians in camps, versus 1.5 million at its peak.

Introducing a mobile wallet

Elsewhere in the country, life has also improved a bit for other Haitians allowing them to take a small step forward in recovering from the quake.

Mercy Corps, my new employer, is wrapping up a very successful and innovative mobile wallets program in St. Marc, along Haiti’s western coast. (Yup — mobile wallets. This is a capability that hasn’t been realized yet in the U.S. – a first-world country!)

Along with our local telecommunications partner, Voila, we’re using technology to allow users to store money on their cell phone.

As part of its overarching strategy to respond to the emergency and help with Haiti’s recovery – Mercy Corps decided to focus the bulk of its time, money and energy outside the capital, in the Central Plateau. Our rationale was that while most aid organizations were focused on helping Haitians inside the capital, tens of thousands of IDPs or internally displaced people who had lost their homes and most of their possessions and had fled Port-au-Prince after the quake, and as a result, were placing an undue burden on so-called host-families who now had more mouths to feed and shelter.

As part of the mobile wallets program, over the last 10 months or so about 7,500 families have each received $50 dollars a month — via their cell phone — towards beans, rice, oil and corn flour. What that means is that every month Mercy Corps electronically transmits the funds to thousands of cell phones. Once the money is “in” their phone, families can visit one of the 40 neighborhood vendors, like Janos Theophyl, who’ve been trained by Mercy Corps to manage these virtual transactions.

It’s a win-win proposition for the families and vendors.

20-year old Gina of St Marc has five people in her family. Thanks to the mobile money program, she told me her family was able to use some of the money they would’ve had to spend for food, towards sending her younger sister and older brother to school.

Without this program, families like Gina’s would likely have purchased tiny, individualized plastic bags of food on a daily basis, rather than buying in bulk, which even though it’s more cost effective, also requires more money up front.

Theophyl, the small shop owner, beamed when I asked her whether the program Haitians call “Kenbe la” (Hang in There) had been a success. “I was able to build a new home thanks to all the new business I have,” she said proudly.

And it’s also been a much more cost-effective and time saving program for Mercy Corps to manage than the paper vouchers that must be manually handed out to beneficiaries providing them access to free locally sourced food.

When the money transfers stop later this month, Mercy Corps plans to launch another round of financial literacy trainings for vendors to provide them with basic business skills like: how to best display their merchandise and how to reinvest profits into their business to help them grow and flourish.

In the future, with more funding, Mercy Corps hopes to expand this mobile program by integrating it into new projects in agriculture and energy poverty, and working on the use of mobile wallets for remittances from Haitian Diaspora living in the US.

Incidence of cholera increasing

But even as some Haitians appear to be taking one step forward, others are sliding backwards.

Since last October, cholera, a deadly but imminently treatable disease has been spreading around the country. In order to better educate the public about cholera, which hadn’t been seen in Haiti for decades, Mercy Corps has since trained dozens of health promoters to teach proper hygiene, and set up close to 90 cholera kiosks in remote towns and villages around Mirabelle and Hinche. The kiosks are a cheaper and more efficient way to distribute chlorine concentrate to produce safe, drinkable water for families forced to rely, for instance, on polluted rivers to get their water.

As we drove along the rocky mountainous dirt roads outside of Hinche, my colleagues and I passed 19-year old Guerline riding a small donkey. With her pretty straw hat and loose-fitting checkered top that covered her pregnant belly, Guerline shared the news that her grandmother had recently died of cholera. Yes, she said, they had gotten chlorinated water from Mercy Corps, but her grandmother, unlike the rest of the family, preferred not to drink it.

The Haitian Ministry of Public Health tracks the number of cases reported around the country. The news isn’t good. The numbers are started to inch back up – with 920 new reported cases and 3 mortalities in August alone. That’s because the rainy season – which washes infected waste from open sewers into the rivers — is underway and won’t end until November.

When we visited a cholera treatment center in Mirbalais run by another highly respected NGO, Partners in Health, the head of the center told us she had just received 14 new patients. Among them – 9 month old Alexander with an IV drip in his tiny arm. His young mother sat next to him on a hard wooden table covered with plastic, helpless to comfort her son. Other children lay nearby clearly in pain.

Unlike the situation this time last year, a lot of other NGOs that were able to help pitch in to respond to the cholera outbreak in October, have since pulled out Haiti. Almost two years after the 2010 earthquake, donations made to NGOs have either been spent or are rapidly diminishing.

A question my colleagues in Haiti are eager to have answered – will the US government step in to provide funding to respond to the growing number of cholera cases? And if it doesn’t, who will?

The Haitian government is still in turmoil. Even though a new democratically elected President Michel Martelly is now installed in office, due to a political impasse between Martelly and the country’s Congress, there is no prime minister and other key cabinet posts are also vacant.