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The Great leveller

 

Vulnerability 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 are working.

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 foothold.

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 he knows.

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 tomorrow.”

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 class.

“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 had before.”

By Claire Doole
Claire Doole is a freelance writer and producer who served as IFRC spokesperson in Haiti.


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.
©Benoit Matsha-Carpentier/IFRC

 

 

 

 

 

 


“They’ve forgotten
us. My house has
been marked
for demolition
and there is no
government
compensation, so
how am I going to
rebuild my life?”

Antoine Petit,
a 48-year-old father
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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.”

Manes Barthelemy,
a 38-year-old pastor
and former headmaster
of a church school”

 

 

 

 

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