Haiti - What "work" are the "cash-for-work" programs really doing?

"As Haiti suffers, the world dozes," remarked a recent Washington Post editorial.

But not everyone is dozing...

All across Haiti, humanitarian agencies and organizations are running scores of "cash-for-work" jobs programs where people get 200 gourdes a day - about US$5 -to sweep streets, clear rubble by hand, dig ditches and clean out latrines in the camps.

Most media heap nothing but praise on the programs.

  • Le monde happily relayed former US President Bill Clinton who called the program "really important" and added that the US has "a lot of experience in this area from the Near East and Afghanistan" and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who noted: "It is really important to give people something positive to do."

  • PBS was thrilled to report that now, "[o]n every sidewalk and corner of Port-au-Prince there are entrepreneurs."
  • And in one of its headlines, the Christian Science Monitor proclaimed that "cash for work" was helping "the recovery."
  • 2010-11-10-D2workers.gif

    Cash-for-workers clearing rubble in the capital

    • But do cash-for-work programs help "the recovery"?

  • Is it a good thing that the sidewalks are jammed with people selling mostly imported goods and cast-off clothing and shoes from overseas?
  • What lurks behind the comments of Clinton and Ban?
  • What is the effect of all these jobs?
  • Unfortunately for the Haitian government, for economists and for the public at large, no single person or agency actually knows how many people are working in the multitude of cash-for-work and food-for-work programs in Haiti at the moment.

    In all likelihood, taken together, these agencies are the largest source of employment in the country.

    The World Food Program hopes to have employed 140,000 people for a month each by the end of the year. The U.S. Agency for International Development says it employed 8,000 workers a day from late January through the end of June. The U.N. Development Program's cash for work program will cost over $80 million.


    People do appear to be "working" (or at least some of them... see the photo above) but what work are they doing, and why?

    And what are the effects of this army of humanitarians and their million-dollar job programs?

    Haiti Grassroots Watch
    , the Haiti-based investigative journalism consortium, decided to take a look. Their journalists discovered that a lot more than rubble removal is going on, and that the jobs do much more than inject cash into the economy.

    The programs:

    • can lead to monetary and political corruption,
    • contribute to the country's dependency on foreign food,
    • further undermine a weakened government,
    • appear to harm the work ethic, and
    • are sometimes used to assure that frustrated and impoverished people are kept busy, so they don't take to the streets to make their demands heard.

    These findings and more are discussed "Cash for... what?"

    Watch the video below, and check out the two part series here (in English). (Spanish and French also available.)