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Aid workers in Haiti trying to find the right balance by "going local"

Whom do you choose? How much is too much? When do you change gears? Those are just some of the questions swirling through the minds of aid workers as they scramble to help Haitians recover from the devastation of the quake.

Some lost everything. Some had nothing to lose. Almost all lost loved ones and their peace of mind.

Some were living on the streets when the earth jolted, so technically they haven't lost their homes. Others still have their homes but they've lost the confidence to sleep in them.

Wary of creating dependency, aid agencies are shifting their focus from relief to recovery and reconstruction but the fact is that for many of the most vulnerable, the need for long-term support is undeniable.

A grandmother who suddenly finds herself raising a handful of grandchildren may not need a job or a loan, she needs an income. And in the absence of a national social protection program, it's difficult to credibly give a family start-up funding for a new enterprise without also assuring ongoing support while they get back on their feet.

Oxfam staff and our local partners are struggling with these dilemmas as we pass the four-month mark since the quake. Adjacent to some of the small settlements that jam every open space in the city, Oxfam funded 55 community canteens with the goal of ensuring the most vulnerable were receiving one nutritious meal a day. Each canteen prepared lunch for up to 80 or so people.

Midday a steady stream of women and girls arrive with their plates and pots to be filled. They have been identified by community committees or Oxfam partner organizations as the most vulnerable because of what they've lost or what they never had.

The food, sourced locally and quite tasty, is prepared by other women hired from the community, most of whom it seemed had been a cook or operated a canteen before the quake.

Knowing we were meeting only a portion of the need, the canteens were located just outside the squatter camps to minimize the risk of a stampede from residents who haven't been selected for support.

The plan is to end the canteen services and give each household start-up funds to help launch a business. Feasibility studies have been done and lessons from past disasters are being put in practice. But the scale and complexity of the Haiti disaster with its urban character means that we aren't sure how viable these businesses will soon be or how soon a family can expect to become self-reliant.

So the question remains what more we must do to ensure people's basic needs are bring met - and their rights protected - as we transition from relief to recovery.

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