05/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Unleashing the Haitian Enterprising Spirit

On my recent trip to Haiti, I was filled first with despair and then hope. Despair for the overwhelming human and physical destruction. Hope because of the quiet strength, resilience, and determination of the Haitian people.

I spent my time in the sprawling tent camps in Port-au-Prince. It's estimated that 1 million people now live in these camps -- with no water or sanitation and where people sleep under bed sheets tied to sticks in the ground. The city is now populated with amputees, orphans and the homeless. This was a desperately poor population before the earthquake. What little they had is now gone.

Let us not forget that this is a disaster of extreme poverty. This earthquake did not need to result in such devastation. The Northridge earthquake that took place in southern California in 1994 similarly struck a dense urban area and was nearly as strong as Haiti's quake (a 6.7), yet its toll of human misery wasn't nearly as high. Sixty people died in California; as many as 230,000 people have died in Haiti. People died because they lived in shanties perched on hillsides, because they were in buildings that were poorly built in a crowded city of three million on a fault line with no building codes.

As I spent time in the tent camps, I thought, 'How are Haitians going to survive, let alone rebuild?' The answer became clear to me as I watched how Haitians live their daily lives. Everywhere I went, they were making the most of meager resources -- washing a shirt in a plastic bottle of water, taking scraps of food and stretching them into a meal, scavenging through rubble to find material to rebuild a hut. Their enterprising spirit and drive for survival sprung quickly to life after the earthquake.

In one small tent, I met Charlene Malebranche. There she lived with her husband and two little girls, Dahlia and Sahina, and a 16-year-old friend who had lost her entire family. They had retrieved cinder blocks from the rubble to make an uncomfortable floor that would keep them off the mud when the rainy season begins. Charlene invited me to sit in her tent. She talked about how they all sleep holding each other since they are afraid of another earthquake. Her two girls never leave her side. She takes some of the rice she has received in distributions and makes a traditional dish, akasan, to sell for a bit of cash on the street. She smiled warmly throughout our conversation and showed a quiet but fierce determination to ensure her family's survival.

Charlene Malebranche

Charlene Malebranche and her daugheters. Photo by Linda Mason/Mercy Corps.

I witnessed this same strength and resolve when I met another mother, Haiti's First Lady, Elisabeth Delatour Preval. The earthquake was a great equalizer. Like so many others, her home and place of work were destroyed along with most government buildings. I met with the First Lady in the government's makeshift headquarters in a small police station near the airport.

First Lady Preval is passionate about the needs of Haiti's children and parents. Half of Haiti's people are under 18. Madame Preval echoed the sentiments of Charlene. The half-million children living in the tent camps are frightened and clutching their parents, who are equally as afraid. I went to Haiti on behalf of Mercy Corps and Bright Horizons. They have created a Comfort for Kids program, implemented after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Sichuan earthquake in China to help parents and caregivers effectively respond to children's emotional needs and symptoms of trauma. Collaborating with First Lady Preval, Mercy Corps is now conducting this training program throughout the day in some of the city's massive tent camps.

Prior to the earthquake, 70% of the population survived on less than $2 a day. This extreme poverty existed despite, or perhaps because of, the massive amounts of aid that have been pumped into the country for decades. Yet I marveled as I saw street vendors and markets spring back into life within days of the earthquake. There is a deeply embedded positive, entrepreneurial spirit in the Haitian culture.

Haitian Woman

Photo by Linda Mason/Mercy Corps

There is hope that now Haiti can be rebuilt stronger and better. Aid agencies should build on this enterprising spirit and give people the tools to help themselves. One effective approach is the cash-for-work programs that are being introduced by forward-thinking relief agencies. Residents can decide what is most needed for their community, and workers are paid a daily wage to clear rubble, dig drainage ditches or build latrines. With their daily wages, families can buy the things they need most with money they have earned -- restoring dignity -- while also pumping money into the Haitian economy at a time when it is most needed.

Aid agencies should creatively support and encourage local initiative and enterprise. Cash grants or loans should be made to small and medium size entrepreneurs and business people. A street vendor can use a small grant to purchase a push-cart for her wares; a small business person can use a loan to refurbish an apparel production facility. Technology can be used to provide banking through cell phones, which nearly every poor family owns.

As international donors prepare to gather this month in New York City, they must remember that Haitians, both poor like Charlene Malebranche and powerful like First Lady Preval, will ensure the country's recovery. There is hope that Haiti can be rebuilt out of its ruins, but it will take both a long-term commitment from the donor community and a resolve to build on Haitians' own initiative, rather than imposing our own.