Monday, March 22, 2010

After the earthquake, the stealth economy

The New York Times offers a view of the post-earthquake encampment set up in the Pétionville Club, the 9-hole golf course in Port-au-Prince.

What's significant: With 44,000 residents living under tarps, this new neighborhood has "a quasi-mayor, a ragtag security force, a marketplace, two movie theaters, three nightly prayer services, rival barber shops and even a plastic-sheeted salon offering manicures and pedicures." The article goes on to highlight the commercial success of these refugees in their own city.

"Everything is for sale, like hair extensions in baggies and padlocks for the wooden doors that many have installed in their tarp-covered shelters. Inside a United States Agency for International Development tent outfitted with freshly made benches and a flat-screen television, one entrepreneur charges about 12 cents for screenings of a “Terminator” movie and the Malaysian kung fu film “Kinta.” Another young businessman rents out his Playstation in one of the designated 'child safe' areas, a green netting atop four poles. A woman runs a bar atop a crate."

But the article concludes that international agencies want to move these self-sufficient and entrepreneurial people out of the city: "Moving families from encampments like the Pétionville Club entails finding and preparing some 1,500 acres of land — one relocation site recently opened and another is being prepared — and then persuading people to move outside the metropolitan area, international groups say."

This neighborhood is functioning and, compared to many other encampments, relatively healthy. Why break it up? Why send it out of the city? These are the very people who ought to be at the center of the renaissance of the Haitian capital.


Anonymous said...

The main reason for moving these people is that:
- if it starts raining in earnest, people will drown and die, diseases will break out in this camp, and many others
- by international standards, there is not merely enough room for the people living there. Individuals need 30 square meters to sustain themselves, in petionville club is is less than 1 square meter. The same counts for water, sanitary facilities. Right in petionville club, the humanitarian community provides maybe 8 liters of water per person per day - 1 liter above the absolute minimum for people to survive and 7 liters below the minimum standard for emergencies. In petionville 44,000 people share 400 poor quality latrines. more than 100 persons per latrine. Together with upcoming flooding during the rainy season, this is a public health emergency waiting to explode.
- Although on the surface there appear to be many livelihoods activities in the camp, not even 20% of the people living in the camp can sustain their families of those activities.

Bottom line: it is easy to romanticize camp life, but by all standards as well as people's self assessment of life there, it is sub-humane. Go live there yourself for a week, and find out.

rn said...


1. You have misunderstood my thought. I'm not saying people should stay as refugees on the golf course. I am saying that they should not be trucked out of town, as the article reported they would be. With their strong self-reliant community and entrepreneurial spirit, they should be encouraged to participate in rebuilding Port-au-Prince.

2. And here's another question: Why can't a new community be built where the Pétionville Club is, with an eye towards meeting the modern standards for water, sanitation, toilets and electricity, and the golf course relocated?

3. Thirty square meters (323 square feet, for those in the U.S.) is a great but fuzzy statistic. It's unclear whether it refers to the space in the home or living space plus open space or, indeed, averaging out all the unused space including roads and other shared space in a community. If it's living space alone, most New Yorkers probably live in inhumane conditions.

4. I'll buy your claim that only 1/5 of the people in the community can sustain their families via the local informal economy. But we should be aware that that's actually an astounding number. My point is not that these businesses are enough, on their own, to change the situation in the Pétionville Club or Port-au-Prince, but that, with appropriate encouragement from government and aid organizations, they could function as building blocks for a robust local economy in which the money stays local.

5. From your recitation, it sounds like you have been in Port-au-Prince. If that's true, how about writing a longer comment with your thoughts and observations from the epicenter?

Greg Vaughan said...

Mr. Neuwirth--

I have very much enjoyed reading your insights on the resurgent informal economy in Haiti. I especially appreciate your insistence on taking advantage of the drive and initiative of displaced Haitians for any rebuilding effort, as opposed to treating them as criminals or cargo to be carted from place to place according to directives from urban planners and international organizations. I have drafted a proposal for post-earthquake agrarian development based on supporting the migration that is currently taking place from affected cities to the Haitian countryside. I would very much like to share it with you. My email address is I look forward to hearing from you.

Greg Vaughan