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Leila Chirayath Janah

Leila Chirayath Janah

Posted: March 31, 2010 12:05 AM

Rebuilding Haiti: A Long-Term View

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Leila Janah
Samasource founder Leila C. Janah conducts a training with workers in Mirebalais, Haiti. Many people fled here from Port-au-Prince after the devastating earthquake; Computer-based work will create a sustainable local economy that will give them the opportunity to stay rather then return to the overcrowded capital city.

As the efforts to rebuild Haiti transition from emergency support to longer-term economic recovery and development, and just before the UNDP convenes a donor conference to address the crisis, I thought I'd share a few thoughts from recent talks and readings.

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an Op-Ed highlighting the key elements of successful recovery. I think they could be prioritized better, but here they are:

1. TRANSPARENCY, ACCOUNTABILITY, EFFECTIVENESS

2. HAITIAN INVOLVEMENT

3. SELF-SUFFICIENCY (I'd make this #1)

4. TAPPING THE DIASPORA

5. DECENTRALIZATION

This is a good list of nice-to-haves, but I think it misses the bigger picture. Transparency, accountability, and effectiveness are a by-product of aligned incentives. One of the main problems with aid is that the people providing the money are quite far removed from (and generally not accountable to) the people being affected by it. 

This is particularly true in the aftermath of the recent disaster. Haiti's poor human development outcomes have much to do with the country's political and economic structure, which places power, money and opportunity in the hands of a tiny minority. Massive amounts of donor capital routed through Haiti's existing political system isn't going to pull the country out of poverty anytime soon.

Samasource workers in Haiti
Samasource workers in Haiti like to collaborate on problems. 'Pairing' is known amongst software developers as way to speed up computer-based tasks. Here, resource constraints give rise to the same practice.

More important now than ever are good jobs: Haiti's population needs to be plugged into global markets for goods and services as producers, not just consumers. The UN is experimenting with cash-for-work programs that employ people as day laborers on construction sites -- this is a good idea, but it won't equip Haitians with the skills they need to catapult themselves out of poverty in the new economy.

Haiti's population is 80% poor, but 50% literate. This is hopeful for companies that need low-cost labor for administrative and data entry work that can be done via the Internet. Outsourcing is a $200B global market, and a portion of this market is French-based. Why not tap Haiti for the one resource it has in abundance: human capital?

To pilot this concept, Samasource set up a program in Haiti to build digital livelihoods among youth affected by the earthquake. So far, we've identified paying work for the US State Department (translating text messages as part of an SMS-based 911 service), and are looking for additional work for the center. You can read more here (from a talk I gave at Google on the subject):

Digital work offers a new type of livelihood for Haitians that not only connects them to paying work, but also increases their lifetime earning potential (by over 300%, according to some of the data we've seen.)

The UN hopes to raise billions of dollars for Haiti at the donor conference in New York. Rather than giving more aid, let's provide Haitians with what they need most: dignified work that pays a fair wage and builds much-needed skills.

I'll leave you with a short video of one of our workers in Mirebalais, who describes what it's like to be jobless in Haiti. There are hundreds of thousands more just like him, waiting desperately for work.

 

Follow Leila Chirayath Janah on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@leila_c