x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Drive to jump-start struggling economy

Government expects financial output to sink by 25 per cent as it struggles to cope with more than two million people left homeless.

Jenni Chery, 36, has started a mobile-phone charging business in Port-au-Prince.
Jenni Chery, 36, has started a mobile-phone charging business in Port-au-Prince.

PORT-AU-PRINCE // Jenni Chery sits behind a tangle of electric cables, car batteries and power strips, plugging in his neighbours' mobile phones for about 40 US cents (Dh1.5) a recharge, between the mountains of corpse-ridden rubble in this devastated capital.

The 36-year-old was a carpenter for 10 years but, like many residents of Port-au-Prince, he was forced to make a rapid career change when the earthquake flattened more than one-third of this city on January 12. Although destitute, homeless and hungry, many survivors of Haiti's most devastating earthquake in more than a century agree on what is most urgently needed to kick-start their economic recovery: jobs.

Clutching CVs handwritten in ball-point pens and wearing the smartest clothes salvageable from devastated homes, they wander the streets looking for employment - many begging for translation work among the influx of foreign-aid workers and journalists. "I used to be a carpenter, but after the earthquake there has been no work for me," said Mr Chery, sitting behind his makeshift stall in Carrefoure-Feuilles, a hilltop suburb of the capital. "My house was destroyed. I have two boys to feed. The food is running out and water is hard to come by. If this continues to pay, then I will keep on charging mobile phones."

With so many homeless in this city of three million, charging telephone batteries offers earthquake entrepreneurs a rare opportunity to make cash. Some peddle top-up cards, medicines or vegetables on street corners; others wait outside the city's few standing hotels offering television crews a driver-cum-interpreter service. In Carrefoure-Feuilles's UN-run recycling centre, Vania Jean sits in line for the chance to earn $3 a day sweeping dust and rubble from the streets as the world body orchestrates a citywide clean-up operation.

"Things were bad for us before the earthquake - then they got worse," the mother of five said. "I'm not lazy; I'm willing to work. If I was lazy, I wouldn't be here today, leaving my three-month-old baby with my sister while I go out and try to get food for him." The 38-year-old used to sell plantain in local markets, but lost her home, clothes and savings in the earthquake and now needs a cleaning job to raise cash and buy fresh supplies of the banana-like Caribbean staple.

The UN has employed 700 rubble-cleaners since the earthquake struck and plans to create 220,000 jobs across Port-au-Prince and other areas such as the coastal towns of Jacmel and Léogâne over coming weeks. Elaine Nicolini, a technical adviser for the UN Development Programme, said work is granted to those most affected by the earthquake - the homeless, the bereaved, those supporting children and the injured - with only one job allotted within each family.

"Everything is paralysed, so we need to inject cash into the economy," Ms Nicolini said. "The money from this scheme will enter the marketplace as people buy food and drink. This will kick-start the economy and help get things back together." Haiti was in economic chaos even before the earthquake brought it to its knees, and the government expects economic output to plummet by 25 per cent as it struggles to cope with more than two million people left homeless.

The western hemisphere's poorest nation may take 25 years to recover, Haiti's envoy to the UN, the ambassador Leo Merores, said. The temblor caused more damage to the $7 billion economy than the four hurricanes that struck in 2008, which cut 15 per cent off gross domestic product, he said. The country shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic and has a population of about 9.6 million. Per capita income is about US$560, with 54 per cent of Haitians living on less than $1 a day and 78 per cent on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

Bill Clinton, the UN's envoy to Haiti, spoke on Thursday of the importance of giving "young people something positive to do" and said many Haitians "want to be a part of rebuilding their country" before calling for foreign investment to drive economic recovery. The former US president has enlisted Denis O'Brien, the Irish owner of the Haitian mobile phone operator, Digicel, to encourage capital flows from overseas, saying he already "employs a very large number of young Haitians selling his cards".

The Salvation Army plans to increase its programme of lending $100 to help so-called "micro-entrepreneurs" launch small businesses - by purchasing sewing machines, stock for grocery stores or blade-sharpening kits. Bob Poff, the aid group's disaster chief, warns that Haiti needs massive investment flows, with unemployment rates as high as 80 per cent before the earthquake leaving fledgling business suffering from "no paying customers".

"It's not that Haitians are lazy, nor because they don't have skills - it's just there's nothing to encourage them to invest, expand and develop," he said. "It's like the roads in Haiti, where you're always stuck in traffic. "The only reason for this is because, at the intersection, there are two guys in their cars who won't move. All they would have to do is back up a couple of feet and everybody could move - but they won't do it. The jobs and the economy are the same. Everybody is stuck in traffic."

Makenson Maxamilian, 27, lost his house in the earthquake and now stands among dozens of young men crowding outside an aid compound in Pacot, an upmarket suburb of central Port-au-Prince, with a handful of job postings taped to the metal gates. But many of the advertised three-month contracts - such as accountant, psychologist and logistics manager - are well beyond the scope of the many earthquake-survivors scouring the turquoise gates for a viable option.

Mr Maxamilian, formerly a computer teacher, urgently needs to make cash to buy food and medicines for his wife and two-month-old boy, Esdeal, who now reside under plastic sheets in one of the capital's many camps. "We're really struggling. That's why I came out today, to see what work I could get," he said. "I'm not the only one looking for a job - all the guys here are looking for jobs. I want the international community to listen to this, to take this seriously and unite to help us."

jreinl@thenational.ae