A daily bulletin of news & opinion

26 January 2010

Finding work in Haiti has rarely been easy. But amid the carnage and destruction of the recent earthquake, thousands of Haitians are battling to find new ways to support their families. They are the earthquake’s new generation of entrepreneurs.

“Most Haitians are entrepreneurs,” Garcia Galat, 37, a New York-raised Haitian who is working as a fixer in Port-au-Prince for an international television channel, tells me. He picks up a piece of rubble “If they can sell this rock, they’ll sell it, you know?” In New York, Garcia works in customer services for an electricity firm. But in search of a decent wage and keen to see his family, he traveled back to Haiti after the earthquake and was quickly recruited to help the TV crew navigate the crumbly streets of Port-au-Prince.

For those like Garcia who speak English, the obvious choice is work as an interpreter, which can pay up to $200 a day. Hundreds of Anglophone Haitians crowd around the entrances to hotels, hospitals and UN military bases offering their interpreting services. Our fixer in Port-au-Prince is Stenio Beaubrum, a former English teacher. For Stenio, fixing earthquake stories is a way of paying for his pregnant wife’s caesarian. He expects it will cost about $1,000.

Others have become electricity salesmen. With most of the city still without electricity, these men use car batteries and generators to provide a mobile phone recharging service for about 80 cents a pop.

“We are doing well, yes. But we are helping too,” says 27-year-old Fritznel Dorsinvel, who invested in a small generator after the quake and now has a steady flow of customers where he sits, outside his home, surrounded by phone chargers “People need their phones to know if their families are okay or not.”

All over town, Haitians are inventing new ways of making money. In a refugee camp in the city’s football stadium I come across Pierre Adeline, a 26-year-old who rents her telephone to the stadium’s homeless population so that they can call their families to check they are alive. The calls cost about one cent a minute. “It’s not easy,” she says. “But I’m trying to make a living.”

Down the street we bump into Jean Dorcius, a 17-year-old hawking out-of-date antibiotics and painkillers outside the wreckage of a beauty salon. He had expected to boost his $2 daily income, with earthquake survivors looking to self-medicate. But he was wrong. Nobody has the money to pay. “I make just enough to eat,” he says.

On the other side of town we spot a more unusual scene: a street hawker attempting to sell the door from a gynecologist’s surgery, salvaged from the debris of a local clinic.

Perhaps the most disturbing face of Haiti’s earthquake entrepreneurs are the “body finders”, who arrange access to places where journalists can photograph the bodies of those who were killed by the earthquake or of looters who were lynched in its aftermath. There’s something deeply troubling about the disaster capitalism I’ve witnessed over the last eight days in Haiti; about the way in which many people have profited from the almost unimaginable carnage here. From the journalists in search of their headlines and the hoteliers who have ratcheted up their prices to the body fixers who make their money by uncovering the dead, we have all taken our cut.

I put my concerns to Garcia one morning, as we all prepared to head out into the stench of Port-au-Prince in search of the news. “It’s a messed up feeling,” he said. “I’m making money so I can help my family. But I’m making money off a disaster. It hurts.” But, he goes on, in a country where most people live off less than $100 a month and where job opportunities are almost as rare as natural disasters, how could we expect any different?

“I’ve seen dead Haitians every day. Every day. It’s sad that they have to profit off the dead. It’s sad that this is the only way to get an opportunity,” he says, pausing. “But it is.”


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