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A study in contrasts

Haiti, February 12, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Rinn Self/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Cash-for-work participants in the Petionville neighborhood of Port-au-Prince receive payments for a week's work of clearing debris, shoveling out ditches and repairing roads. Photo: Rinn Self/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Rinn Self/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (left) talks with Mercy Corps Country Director Bill Holbrook about the work that needs to be done in Haiti. Photo: Rinn Self/Mercy Corps

In many ways, Haiti is a study in contrasts. Here in Petionville, houses lay in ruins while directly next door a brightly painted Yamaha dealership sits undamaged. Amid concrete rubble and twisted rebar, children run and play and smile.

My day today was characterized by stark contrasts as well: it began with a quiet and orderly distribution of cash payments to our cash-for-work participants in a nearby neighborhood. It ended with the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

This morning, my colleague Carol Ward and I went up the road to the Ecole des Frères to oversee the first cash payment disbursement to participants in our cash-for-work program. In this neighborhood, one of several where we are working, a group of 80 men and women had been clearing debris, shoveling out ditches and repairing roads for the past week. Today was payday.

We arrived early at the school, where a large displacement camp sprung up after the earthquake. We met with Jean-Pierre, the community liaison, and Alex, a representative of Fonkoze, our local partner who handles all the payments. One by one, participants filed in, were greeted by the Fonkoze staff, turned in the voucher card they had been given at the start of the week, received their cash payment and signed the register. Everything went off without a hitch and the participants all seemed proud and pleased to have earned a week’s wage.

When we returned to the office, I jumped in another car with our Country Director Bill Holbrook and our Logistics and Security Coordinator Jacques Azemar for a completely different trip — to meet with a bi-partisan Congressional delegation that was spending a whirlwind half day in Haiti. The trip was arranged by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and included Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon — a big proponent of Mercy Corps' work — who had invited us to attend part of the delegation’s visit.

We drove to the Geshiko clinic, which before the earthquake was Port-au-Prince’s primary HIV/AIDS facility. Today, it is hosting a field hospital unit run by DMAT — the U.S. Disaster Medical Assistance Team. Mercy Corps was one of only three international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) invited to the briefing. Bill had only a few moments to speak with Representative Pelosi, Representative Blumenauer and Representative Charles Rangel of New York.

To each of them, he expressed Mercy Corps’ firm belief that job creation and economic rehabilitation are key to the successful long term recovery of Haiti. He explained how our current work here is setting the stage for this long-term development, and how we are working to empower Haitians to build a new economic and social foundation for their country.

It was an exciting opportunity, and I’ll admit to being a little starstruck by all these U.S. politicians we suddenly found ourselves speaking with. It was gratifying to see how appreciative they were of us, the humanitarian and medical community who have responded to this disaster.

But as impressive as the politicians were, seeing the hard-working people of Petionville collecting their weekly wages this morning was a hard act to follow.