Haiti’s “cash-for-work” Seen As A Double-edged Sword

All across Haiti, United Nations, bilateral and non-governmental agencies are running scores of “cash-for-work” programmes. But are they “working”?

The humanitarian agencies that run the $5-a-day job programmes [see Sidebar 1] claim they helped “relaunch” the economy and now are supporting “reconstruction and disaster risk reduction, increas[ing] the sustainability of agricultural rehabilitation and stimulat[ing] the local economy,” to quote the World Food Programme (WFP).

“The idea is to increase the amount of agricultural land in the countryside so that people can earn more from their land,” Stephanie Tremblay, WFP communications officer, told Haiti Grassroots Watch.

And where people are clearing roads or rubble or building canals, there are tangible effects, although some are temporary [see Sidebar 2]. But other effects are more lasting. The jobs programmes – employing somewhere between 5,000 and 50,000 people a day, although nobody seems to know for sure – do much more than inject cash into the economy.

Not unexpectedly, this kind of deal engenders some corruption and favouritism, as local “strong men” or political leaders pass out jobs in exchange for kickbacks or votes. But these kinds of concerns are minor compared with other consequences.

“The main impact of cash-for-work is on the circulation of money,” noted Haitian economist Gerald Chéry, adding that whereas the programme was helpful immediately following the Jan. 12 earthquake, today it is having a perverse effect because people use their money mostly to buy imported food, or items – again, mostly imported – to hawk on the street.

Over half of the food Haitians eat is imported. In 2008, Haiti imported almost $1 billion in goods and services from the U.S. alone, spending some $325 million on food.

“We need the money to circulate in Haiti, not leave Haiti to go to another country. The money needs to stay in Haiti so that it will create work,” Chéry said, adding that to be useful, job programmes need to be tied into a vertically integrated economic effort.

(Click for larger image)

Another problem is that in the countryside, the programmes – which are supposedly targeting earthquake refugees – appear to be drawing peasants off the land.

Agronomist Philippe Céloi, who supervises a six-month Catholic Relief Services programme in the south, admitted that most of his 468 workers were local peasants, not refugees from the capital.

“After six months there will be benefits – not only the workers have gotten a salary but also the community benefits,” Céloi said.

Asked about farmers’ fields however, Céloi admitted there was a downside.

“These people are not doing the planting they ought to be doing. Right now it’s bean season… And they aren’t planting potatoes or manioc or sorghum, so when this programme ends, there is going to be a problem,” he said.

But there is another impact that has become increasingly troubling to observers and even some implementers. The American Refugee Committee recently had about 1,500 people a day working at camps in the capital.

“We helped people get immediate cash, as well as to help them get some things done within neighbourhoods and communities,” said Deb Ingersoll, ARC Cash-for-Work Coordinator.

But like economist Chéry, Ingersoll thinks it is time for the programmes to stop, and she has another concern.

“I worry that we’re creating maybe a bad work ethic because I think that you see a lot of cash-for-work teams all over the city and the country and if you watch, those work teams aren’t necessarily… working,” she noted. “I worry that we’re providing… a visual association of working with not necessarily working hard.”

And this is only part of the negative effect the programmes seem to be having.

Following the earthquake, in addition to providing much- needed emergency goods and services, humanitarian agencies spread out across Haiti, even into areas that weren’t really affected. Many have now set up shop in places like Les Cayes or Hinche, and now provide basic services, jobs and food. Romel François, who used to be a street vendor and who now manages the cash-for-work teams at a camp in the capital, said he thinks the non-governmental organisations should take over Haiti.

“Our future lies with NGOs! We can’t count on the government. If it were for the government, we would be dead already,” he said.

In the countryside, Wilson Pierre, who heads the Perèy Peasant Association and is running a 600-job programme, said that “whatever programme that comes our way, we’ll do it. If it’s work, and we get paid, we’ll do it… I think these jobs should be permanent.”

These attitudes are “very concerning”, economist Camille Chalmers told Haiti Grassroots Watch. “This system of ‘humanitarian economy’ or ’emergency economy’… is locking the country into a ‘humanitarian approach’ and a dependency on aid.”

And as people become more dependent, they become less engaged in their communities.

“There is a growing disconnect between what people think they can do as citizens because more and more roles are being played by NGOs and international actors in all domains… [and] it also legitimises the presence of international actors in all the domains,” Chalmers added.

“International actors” have been in Haiti for almost a century, and they have been active in both the economic and political spheres.

Chalmers and others are troubled to note that sometimes cash-for-work programmes tie the two spheres together. A recent audit obtained by Haiti Grassrsoots Watch makes it clear.

The USAID Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), which through Jun. 30 had spent over $20 million on cash-for-work programmes, had as its primary goals to “support the Government of Haiti, promote stability, and decrease chances of unrest”.

In a letter attached to the audit, Robert Jenkins, acting director of USAID-Haiti and AID/OTI, reiterated that the primary goal was not rubble-removal, it was “stability”, and he added that the programmes were “clearly branded as a Government of Haiti initiative”. In an election year, this heavily favours the incumbent party and its candidates.

Cash-for-work “is a double-edged sword, which doesn’t do anything for the country, and which can even cause damage,”said Adeline Augustin, a journalist from Radio Voice of the Peasant in Papaye and one of the Haiti Grassroots Watch journalists who carried out a three-week investigation into cash-for-work. “We need a sustainable economic plan based on national production.”

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