takes on new meaning as the massive urban disaster strikes
at the heart of Haiti’s middle class.
I had barely jumped out of the Red Cross Land Cruiser before
I was surrounded by people waving their CVs. I am on a return
visit to Tabarre Issa, a government camp outside the Haitian
capital Port-au-Prince, where many humanitarian agencies
As I look through the neatly typed CVs from information
technology professionals, nurses, receptionists and teachers,
it strikes me how easily you can lose everything after a
natural disaster — and how hard it is to regain your
One of the CVs stands out. Three pages in elegant French
request the recipient to consider Manes Barthelemy, a 38-year-old
pastor and former headmaster of a church school.
“I used to run an NGO [non-governmental organization]
for poor children, but now I am dependent on the NGOs here
for water, shelter and healthcare,” he says clutching
an envelope of photographs of his former life when he had
a house, a job and status.
“I have lost all my points of reference. I know nobody
in this camp and don’t know how I am going to get out
of this nightmare and provide for my family again.”
More than six months after the earthquake that claimed an
estimated 300,000 lives and wiped out 100,000 homes, members
of what was Haiti’s middle class have become the new
poor in a land of immense poverty. The middle class in Haiti
has always been a small and endangered subset (roughly 15
per cent) of the population and the term is used to cover
a wide range of people (from small business owners and managers
to administrators, doctors, lawyers and homeowners) with
steady, if perhaps modest, income.
Now an entire population of professionals is struggling
to survive. “They’ve forgotten us,” says
Antoine Petit, a 48-year-old father of two and owner of an
import–export business that collapsed after the quake. “My
house has been marked for demolition and there is no government
compensation, so how am I going to rebuild my life?”
Petit is renting a few squalid rooms without running water
from a friend. Even though his neighbourhood now resembles
Beirut at the height of the civil war, like many middle-class
Haitians in his situation, he prefers to stay in an area
Kesner Pharel, a local economist and management consultant,
is of the opinion that: “The worst place to be right
now in Haiti is the middle class. They invested everything
they had in their homes and they have lost it all. The upper
classes have the money to get back on their feet while many
in the lower class, who had nothing before not even a house,
are more used to adversity.”
Stretching the concept of vulnerability
Humanitarian agencies specialize in helping the most vulnerable — one-parent
households, families with many children, people with disabilities
and the elderly. It’s a categorization that changes
depending on the context and Haiti, the biggest urban disaster
in one country that the Movement has ever had to deal with,
is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be vulnerable.
“This disaster has completely changed my conception
of vulnerability,” says Michaële Gédéon,
president of the Haitian Red Cross Society. “Within
literally seconds, the world of the middle class collapsed.
Civil servants, lawyers, doctors, businessmen dropped a social
class overnight and it made me realize that someone who was
not considered vulnerable yesterday may be considered vulnerable
Everyone, whether rich or poor, is considered vulnerable
immediately after a natural disaster and has the right to
receive humanitarian assistance, but as the recovery phase
kicks in, aid agencies have to make hard decisions about
where to target limited resources.
Traditionally, agencies have put most of their efforts into
helping the most vulnerable get back on their feet, but the
scale of the urban disaster in Haiti has led to a new approach.
While Oxfam opened community canteens and ran cash-for-work
programmes, two staples in the early recovery diet, the agency
is for the first time recapitalizing trades people such as
welders, masons and plumbers and offering access to credit
via microfinance for grocery- store owners.
Most agencies help the poorest of the poor, says Philippa
Young, a livelihoods expert for Oxfam in Haiti. “This
doesn’t generate employment and economic opportunity.
We need to go beyond helping people to just scratch a living.”
Working-class and middle-class people, with entrepreneurial
flair or basic work ethic, are benefiting from projects that
give them access to credit. The American Red Cross has given
US$ 8.2 million to Fonkaze, Haiti’s largest microfinance
institution, and is helping more than 200,000 people set
up small businesses. Odette Mednard, a dressmaker and small
food-shop owner, lost much of her store’s inventory
in the quake but today her business is growing. “My
husband was a mason, but he hasn’t worked for six months.
I am supporting the family now. Without Fonkaze, it would
be all over.”
Back on the payroll
Recovery experts point out that livelihood programmes generally
focus on helping entrepreneurs restart or start up businesses
rather than give back the middle class their jobs as civil
servants, doctors or lawyers. However, in Haiti, efforts
are being made to ensure that those who do still have a
job are at least still paid a salary.
“We have teamed up with [US NGO] Partners in Health
and are spending US$ 3.8 million to pay the salaries of more
than 1,800 Haitian doctors, nurses and other staff, many
of whom had not been paid since even before the quake, at
the largest general hospital in Port-au-Prince,” says
Julie Sell, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Haiti.
But aid agencies stress that there is a limit to what they
can achieve following an urban natural disaster on the scale
of that in Haiti. “What Haiti needs is a massive reconstruction
effort to rebuild factories, industries and infrastructure.
This is far beyond Oxfam’s capacity and that of the
NGO community,” says Young.
It is up to the Haitian government, with the support of
international donors, to put the country firmly on the path
to recovery. The Haitian prime minister, Jean Max Bellerive,
who along with former US president Bill Clinton chairs the
Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, is a firm believer in
trying to bring more attention to the plight of the middle
“Everyone wants to concentrate their actions on the
camps and the very poor,” he says “That is not
going to change anything in Haiti. After US$ 2 or 3 billion,
we will be back to the best of where we were on 11 January,
which nobody liked.”
A major blow
Even before the earthquake the middle class was a struggling
group. Many who belong to this economic minority flee Haiti’s
political instability to find work in Paris, New York,
Miami and Montreal. Since the earthquake, the brain drain
has continued as many grabbed their passports and children
to join their extended family abroad.
“It will take years, possibly generations before the
middle class regains what it had before the quake,” says
economist Kesner Pharel. “This is a major blow to
Haiti as they are crucial to the country’s recovery.”
Many members of the middle class will benefit from the construction
boom, either finding work in the industry or regaining their
former jobs once their damaged schools, hospitals and offices
have been rebuilt. In the meantime though, if they have not
set up their own business, one of their options remains finding
work with humanitarian agencies.
Those CVs I collected in the camps went to the IFRC head
of human resources in Haiti. Now Antoine Petit has a short-term
contract as a translator with the British Red Cross and pastor
Barthelemy is giving private French and Creole lessons to
a couple of staff at Red Cross base camp in Port-au- Prince. “It
is a start and it is helping me regain my self-respect”,
he says, “but what I really want is to have what I
By Claire Doole
Claire Doole is a freelance writer and producer who served as IFRC spokesperson
Pictured here with his family in Tabarre Issa camp in Port-au-Prince,
Manes Barthelemy was the headmaster of a church school
before the earthquake.
us. My house has
and there is no
how am I going to
rebuild my life?”
of two and owner
of an import–export
business that collapsed
after the quake
Shop owner and dressmaker Odette Mednard lost nearly all her
inventory and many clients in the January quake. Now she
is rebuilding her business and helping others via a micro-loan
programme supported by the American Red Cross.
©Talia Frankel/American Red Cross
Antoine Petit, 48, used to run an import–export business.
Sitting in front of the rubble where his threestorey house
used to stand, Petit says he searches for whatever odd jobs
he can find.
©Tina Stallard/American Red Cross
have lost all my
points of reference.
I know nobody in
this camp and don’t
know how I am
going to get out
of this nightmare
and provide for my
a 38-year-old pastor
and former headmaster
of a church