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Haiti: Getting Back to Business

By Robyn Fieser

"Nothing has changed," says Max Delices, executive director of Outreach to Haiti, as he looks out over the hilly neighborhood of Christ Roi in Port-au-Prince. "The biggest need was, and still is, economic development."

Max Delices

Max Delices, executive director of Outreach to Haiti, a CRS partner that offers education and health services, stands at the organization's campus in the Christ Roi neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Photo by David Rochkind for CRS

It has been 3 years since the Haiti earthquake destroyed the mission house of Outreach to Haiti, a ministry of the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, turning its Christ Roi campus into a makeshift trauma center. During the weeks that followed, staff members partnered with visiting medical groups to work onsite and in the surrounding community.

Outreach to Haiti's response was a natural extension of the critical health care it has provided for more than a decade through its clinic, pharmacy and lab. But after the earthquake, the organization's role expanded through a partnership with Catholic Relief Services.

Today, CRS and Outreach to Haiti are helping families in Christ Roi rebuild their lives, restart their businesses and reconnect with their communities.

Putting Lives Back on Track

"It was a natural fit for us to work with Outreach to Haiti," says Hilary DuBose, deputy head of health programs for CRS Haiti. "Outreach to Haiti has done an excellent job advocating for the communities they work in," she says. "It was, in fact, their advocacy that convinced CRS to intervene in Christ Roi shortly after the 2010 earthquake."

After the earthquake, the first step CRS and Outreach to Haiti took was to provide shelter so that residents could stay in Christ Roi rather than travel to one of the makeshift tent camps that sprang up across the city. Outreach to Haiti selected people who were eligible for transitional shelters—two-room homes designed to last for up to 5 years—and managed the process. With Outreach to Haiti's help, CRS built nearly 1,000 shelters. And they created jobs in the process.

Josephat Vilsaint

Thanks to a grant from the CRS Ti Biznis program, Josephat Vilsaint was able to purchase 300 plants for his side-street garden shop. Photo by David Rochkind for CRS

Hundreds more jobs were created through the CRS Rubble to Reconstruction program. Using hand-cranked crushers, community members—many of whom were selected by Outreach to Haiti—processed rubble into gravel and sand for sale and use in local construction projects, including the shelter program. The crews working in Christ Roi ultimately produced 30,000 blocks, which they sold to CRS and on the open market.

But to really help families in Christ Roi get back on their feet, people need to focus on their businesses, says Delices. And in Haiti, where many people maintain their families by working as street vendors, tailors and artisans, a little bit of capital can go a long way.

To help people revive their businesses or start new ones, Outreach to Haiti and CRS have supported about 130 entrepreneurs in Christ Roi with grants of $500 and basic business training in accounting and marketing. The grants have helped side-street nursery owners like Josephat Vilsaint buy 300 plants of different varieties. Vilsaint, 62, has worked in landscaping for almost 40 years, but he's never seen business as bad as it was just after the earthquake.

"After the earthquake, nobody had a house," he explains.

Things are turning around now, he says. With the new inventory, he's ready for the beginning of the year, when customers begin sprucing up their homes.

Alexandre Amatala, right, chats with Nahomie Calixte at their street stand in Christ Roi. Alexandre participates in a community savings program that CRS runs with Outreach to Haiti. Photo by David Rochkind for CRS

Outreach to Haiti and CRS are also helping people in Christ Roi—many of them single women—form savings groups. Often too poor to access credit from traditional sources, group members build savings over time and can then borrow from the group's coffers to pay for health care and educational expenses or invest in business ventures.

Alexandre Amatala, a member of one of five savings groups in Christ Roi, saved and then borrowed enough money to buy her own inventory of pasta, canned sauces and other foodstuffs to sell on the street near her home. In the past, she paid a 10 percent commission to use someone else's merchandise. At that rate, she barely made enough money to take care of her 14-year-old son.

Although the amount of money people can save, or even earn, in Haiti might seem paltry by U.S. standards, Delices said demand for Outreach to Haiti's savings group programs is overwhelming. It is not uncommon, he says, to receive hundreds of requests for just 25 slots.

With such great need, even a little boost is a major success, Delices says. "The ability to feed your children," he says, "is a big success by all criteria."

Robyn Fieser is CRS' regional information officer for Latin America and the Caribbean. She is based in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

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