Assessing Mercy Corps' cash-for-work program in Haiti

Haiti, December 6, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Since shortly after the January 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti, Mercy Corps has employed 28,100 people through cash-for-work in Port-au-Prince and rural villages of the Central Plateau. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Before the earthquake on January 12, Lenieuse Pierre-Louis, 45, had a small business selling shoes near the airport. The earthquake destroyed her stock and her home. She's been able to earn a daily wage through our cash-for-work program to support her family. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Participants in Mercy Corps' cash-for-work program at the Impasse Corail tent camp. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Dozens of cash-for-work participants assembled at the Impasse Corail tent camp. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

To date, Mercy Corps Haiti has employed 28,100 people through cash-for-work (CFW) in tent camps in Port-au-Prince and in the rural communities of the Central Plateau. In its 30 years of experience working in post-disaster and conflict settings, Mercy Corps has used CFW programs to employ disaster and crisis-affected people in projects that help their own communities recover, providing them with cash wages that allow them to prioritize their own emergency needs and also support the recovery of local markets.

As the report from the Ayiti Kale Je/Haiti Grassroots Watch describes with its analysis of CFW in Haiti, the effectiveness and outcomes of this type of early recovery program varies tremendously in every context.

CFW isn't right for every emergency, nor is it the only way to assist those who need it most, but it is an appropriate response when the goal is to have a quick impact in a crisis and when there are adequate goods locally to meet people's needs. In Haiti, shortly after the earthquake, markets were functioning and goods were available although people lacked the funds to buy them.

Also, one key aspect of CFW that the Haiti Grassroots Watch group did not mention, which, granted, is difficult to measure, is the way in which it supports survivors' sense of dignity and purpose immediately following a disaster. With cash, families are able to prioritize their own needs and spending. The work that survivors do together also boosts their morale and builds community bonds, which help with the overall recovery process.

The 7.0-magnitude January 12 earthquake in Haiti killed 230,000 and affected an estimated three million people. It destroyed the country's economic heart and seat of government. Haiti's prior challenges of poor infrastructure, urban overcrowding, underdevelopment and widespread poverty contributed to the uniqueness of the disaster, which has deeply affected the pace of the recovery.

For Mercy Corps, these challenges meant that we needed to prioritize certain goals of our CFW intervention above others and tailor them to their location. In Port-au-Prince, we recognized that CFW first and foremost had to be about getting cash into the hands of earthquake survivors so they could provide for their families' immediate needs for food, water, healthcare, shelter, and transport.

Our exit surveys for 8,700 households in Port-au-Prince found that CFW laborers spent their wages on:

  • Food (32%)
  • Water (20%)
  • Cooking fuel (29%)
  • Health supplies (3%)
  • Education (5%)

Assessing the appropriateness of CFW

Is CFW appropriate for large-scale reconstruction projects in a dense urban environment? Mercy Corps believes it is not, as CFW is not intended to substitute for engineering projects which need skilled workers, technical oversight, longer timeframes, and heavy-duty equipment and materials. This is why Mercy Corps chose to work with displaced communities to identify projects to improve their immediate living conditions.

Camp committees selected projects that included removing rubble and trash, digging canals, building retaining walls, rehabilitating local dirt roads, and constructing stairs. Given the uncertain situation of these camps, as they are sited on private land and will likely need to relocate in the near future, we accepted at the outset that our CFW projects in Port-au-Prince should focus on having an immediate impact. So we encouraged communities to select projects to improve camp drainage, mitigate flooding, protect tents, and increase the general level of cleanliness. Overseen by Mercy Corps engineers, these projects contributed to families’ health and well-being through the rainy season.

Haiti Grassroots Watch reports it "was unable to find one single displaced person or host family member working a cash-for-work or food-for-work job" in the countryside. However, Mercy Corps has employed displaced people and host families living in the rural Central Plateau since June.

As of October 31, 2010, Mercy Corps' CFW program had employed 13, 592 people, of which 44 percent were internally displaced people, 47 percent were host family members, and 9 percent were poor community members. Here, again — given the desperate circumstances of both the displaced and the local families who took them in — our key goal with CFW was to provide families with access to cash in a manner that supported local markets and helped them meet their immediate needs.

Communities prioritized the projects they wanted to work on. Many of these are basic infrastructure projects that will have a long term impact through their support of the local agricultural economy. Examples include rehabilitating and widening market roads that facilitate farmers' sale of agricultural products at market and reduce their post-harvest losses.

How has CFW impacted Haiti's economy?

To what extent has CFW strengthened the Haitian economy? The Haiti Grassroots Watch group is correct that the vast majority of goods for purchase in Haiti come from outside of the country. In Haiti, the impact of CFW funds on the economy would be greater if the country produced more of its own food and other commodities. Haiti's reliance on imports has long been a problem and will take substantial time to change. In this context, CFW at least upholds existing economic structures but cannot be expected to also stimulate local production. That larger economic challenge needs to be addressed in the coming years as Haiti rebuilds.

Mercy Corps turns crisis into opportunity in some of the world’s toughest places, recognizing how even disasters of the scale of Haiti's earthquake can create an opening for profound change. When Mercy Corps responds to an emergency, we deliver immediate assistance to families and then work with them to help begin longer-term recovery. Haiti's preexisting challenges — as well as those added by the recent cholera epidemic and impact of Hurricane Tomas — has slowed that transition. Nevertheless, we continue to focus our programs on jumpstarting the private sector, avoiding market distortion and laying the foundation for market development.

Today, CFW in the Central Plateau is allowing Mercy Corps to continue to address immediate needs even as we help communities build the foundation for a stronger economy. CFW projects, such as those that rehabilitate market feeder roads or improve farmland, are helping establish infrastructure that support the development of the agricultural economy. Cash going into the economy is benefiting local businesses. Tools such as shovels and pickaxes that communities receive as part of their participation also help them with future projects.

What comes next

In the next few months, Mercy Corps will end CFW projects and begin working with local families and displaced earthquake survivors to turn subsistence farms into profitable businesses that can provide the steady sources of income and local production that are critical to the country's overall economic health. By helping create economic opportunities in agriculture as well as small and medium businesses, our strategy is to ultimately give displaced families the option to remain in the countryside rather than return to Port-au-Prince, contributing to the government's plan to decentralize Haiti’s population and economy.

Mercy Corps' two other long-term economic initiatives in Haiti at present are mobile money services and small and medium enterprise (SME) development. Mercy Corps has partnered with mobile operator Voilà to introduce the country's first "mobile wallet," which allows Haiti's rural poor to use their mobile phones to store their money safely and make purchases. Soon this technology will offer comprehensive financial services via mobile phone to millions of people who have never had the option to have them before.

Today, Mercy Corps is using this technology to give $40 a month for nine months to 5,000 earthquake-affected families in the Artibonite to spend on food at their local market. We are starting a new SME development program to provide training and mentoring to 500 small and growing businesses around the country. The program builds and trains a corps of local mentors and engages the Haitian Diaspora and the international business community in a powerful support network for Haiti's emerging entrepreneurs.

Men and women here need jobs and want to be able to provide for themselves, which is why Mercy Corps continues to focus its efforts on longer-term economic recovery and development for a stronger, more self-sufficient Haiti. CfW is an immediate and transitional step in this economic recovery.