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Mercy Corps’ jobs program aims to put Haiti back on its feet

Haiti, February 2, 2010

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Kevin Harden

The Portland Tribune
February, 2010

Aid group hopes businesses flourish as people get ‘money in their pockets’

Portland’s Mercy Corps is turning its attention from direct aid in quake-damaged Haiti to helping Haitian businesses and employees get back on their feet by putting a little cash in their pockets.

The international aid organization has gathered about $9.8 million in donations for Haiti – about 30 percent of the money coming from the Portland area – and is focusing much of its new efforts and money on helping to create jobs and boost small businesses.

Cassandra Nelson, 37, one of Mercy Corps’ first responders who landed in ravaged Port-au-Prince three days after the Jan. 12 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced thousands more, said Tuesday that the cash-for-work program would help rebuild the country’s economy and provide short-term jobs at a critical time.

“Mercy Corps is really trying to work to transition people away from handouts as quickly as possible,” Nelson told reporters at Mercy Corps’ Portland headquarters. “Certainly we are aware that most of the people are going to continue to need food assistance and other assistance, but in a lot of the cases we believe that if we can get money into people’s pockets, it’s going to be a much better situation.”

About 7,000 people will earn between $3 and $5 a day through Mercy Corps’ six-month program for work such as cleaning debris, clearing storm drains in time for the rainy season (which is right around the corner) and helping maintain long-term camps for the thousands of people displaced by the quake.

‘Stretcher after stretcher’

Nelson, a Progress-area resident, was among two dozen Mercy Corps staff and volunteers who spent most of the past three weeks in Port-au-Prince and traveling around the countryside working with the United Nations non-governmental organizations to distribute aid and help set up camps for people whose homes were destroyed in the earthquake.

She spent more than a day flying into Port-au-Prince on Jan. 15, helping to set up early aid efforts as people were still trying to dig through damaged buildings for survivors and bodies were lying in the streets.

The first few days after the disaster were chaotic, Nelson said, but in the past week better planning and organization helped aid groups ease much of the nation’s suffering.

It was probably one of the worst disaster scenes Nelson had experienced, and she has worked to provide aid in war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq and in Indonesia after the December 2004 tsunami wiped out large sections of the island of Sumatra.

“Literally everything is destroyed,” Nelson said of Port-au-Prince. “Displacement of the people is so apparent. Everywhere you look, in every nook and cranny, every pile of rubble, there seemed to be people trying to survive. If there was an open patch of grass, people were seeking refuge, because they had nowhere to go. That’s just something I hadn’t seen.”

Mercy Corps focused on providing water and food to Port-au-Prince’s main hospital, Nelson said, where families were caring for injured people without basic necessities. In fact, the hospital’s parking lot was filled with injured people – “stretcher after stretcher after stretcher, and there were doctors who were treating patients out in the middle of the lot,” she said.

Since then, the food distribution has improved, providing help to just about every corner of the city, Nelson said.

Transforming Haiti

Now, Mercy Corps staff and volunteers are heading into the Haitian countryside to help villages damaged by the quake that have seen an influx of returning residents who fled ravaged Port-au-Prince slums. In the past three weeks, some villages have seen their populations surge by 10 percent overnight when an estimated 250,000 people streamed out of the city for their home villages, straining resources in areas that had not yet been receiving much aid.

“We’re looking at populations that are already barely surviving,” Nelson said. In some areas grocery stores and outposts were stripped bare of their food and goods, “the stores have just been cleaned out,” she added.

With the new effort, Mercy Corps is one of the first aid groups to venture into Haiti’s countryside, Nelson said. The group hopes to provide long-term job training and other help to keep people from returning to the Port-au-Prince shantytowns, she said.

That program has just started, but it could eventually lead to work with local vocational schools and similar programs to provide “sustainable solutions” for people instead of relying on long-term international aid, Nelson said.

“It’s a longer term vision with a real eye to how we can help transform Haiti and build it back in a much more stable way,” she said.