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Haiti Earthquake, Two Years Later: Everyday Haitians Lead the Rebuilding

December 27, 2011 by

By Ken Hackett and Carolyn Y. Woo

In October 2011, Ken Hackett, who retires as CRS president at the end of 2011, and Carolyn Y. Woo, who becomes CRS’ new president and CEO January 1, 2012, visited Haiti with Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, Bishop of Tucson and chair of the agency’s board of directors. This is Ken and Carolyn’s account of that trip.

It has been 2 years since an enormous earthquake shook Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. Scenes of death and destruction dominated TV news for weeks, and, although the cameras have gone, the recovery continues.

We recently had an opportunity to see real progress in this recovery during a brief visit to Port-au-Prince. We were impressed by what has been accomplished and equally struck by the amount of work still to do.

What pleased us most, though, was witnessing in action the heart of this recovery: the strategy of Haitian empowerment adopted by Catholic Relief Services and many of our partners.

From the outset, that strategy was not about how many homes we could reconstruct, how many water and sanitation systems we could rebuild, or how many people we could feed. To get this recovery right for Haiti, the focus had to be on ordinary Haitians—who had lost so much—leading their own reconstruction in dignified and sustainable ways.

Yes, we saw row after row of newly completed homes—more than 10,000 of them. That was impressive. But we heard more about how neighbors helped neighbors build those houses. Before the earthquake, some of the young men and women from Mrs. Pierre George’s neighborhood hardly gave her the time of day. After the quake, though, they helped her clear her plot, lift the rubble out of the way, and, with the watchful assistance of CRS’ masons and carpenters, build her house.

It was through this approach of empowering communities to help themselves that we witnessed the most powerful results. Take, for example, the people of Solino, a Port-au-Prince neighborhood. CRS didn’t have experience working in this area, but thanks to the persistence of a few residents, we looked at how we could best assist them. One of the challenges this community faced was clearing drainage canals backed up with debris and garbage from other parts of the city. When it rained, Solino flooded. In addition to coping with hundreds of damaged homes, the people of Solino suffered a soaking mess of garbage and filth.

CRS’ first approach was to employ dozens of Solino’s underemployed men and women to clean the drainage canals. Happy to have made this improvement, these same people asked if CRS could help them reconstruct damaged homes. Unemployment and underemployment were endemic in this part of the city, but once the people of Solino started to mobilize themselves, there was no stopping them. Improvements in sanitation and flood drainage, and homes rebuilt and businesses started with small investments made a powerful difference.

Such examples of the difference Haitian empowerment makes abound. Léopold Louis Guimard lost his house and home-based bakery in the earthquake. He spent months living without shelter or basic essentials. With Léopold and his community, CRS built a transitional shelter, which today doubles as his bakery. CRS also equipped Léopold with a $500 small business grant that he used to buy an industrial-sized sifter and enough 100-pound bags of flour to get his gas oven going again. Today, he is back in business and even has five employees.

Key to helping Haitians get back on their feet is job creation. CRS is providing loans, grants and business training to hundreds of entrepreneurs like Léopold so they can restart their businesses. The program has helped other Haitians, like Inola, who now supports her family through sales of the peanut butter she makes, and Ulysee, who has taken on an apprentice because his leather crafts business is so busy.

CRS loaned a hand-operated rubble crusher to another Solino entrepreneur under an agreement that CRS would purchase the crushed rubble at a fixed price to use for the foundations of houses to be built. She grew and rapidly expanded her business. When we met her in October, she had a dozen employees.

With CRS support, communities are forming savings groups. Comprised mostly of women, these groups save small amounts of cash and loan the money to group members so they can finance small business startups. Perhaps the most successful entrepreneur in the program is Laguerre, who used his savings and loans to start his own bakery. He now has eight employees and supports 30 orphans with his profits.

CRS doesn’t pretend we can solve the myriad problems in Haiti. However, working with communities—not for them—and with the local Catholic Church and other partners, such as Habitat for Humanity and the Haitian government, we are supporting powerful—and lasting—change. Your support has helped us bring about that change. Thank you.

Editors: to download photos, click here: http://photos.crs.org/haiti_two_year

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