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Two years later, Haiti's quiet progress

Two years ago, an enormous earthquake devastated Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, and the surrounding areas. While the cameras are gone, Haiti's recovery continues. Having recently visited Port-au-Prince, we can report that much has been accomplished — though the most important successes are not so obvious.

As images of death and destruction dominated the post-disaster news coverage, compassionate Americans donated hundreds of millions of dollars to humanitarian organizations like ours, Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services. Shortly after, some media reports focused on the amount of unspent contributions. With so many needs, the story line went, why aren't you meeting them immediately?

Early on, CRS and some other humanitarian organizations realized that this generosity must help Haitians fundamentally change their lives. Reconstructing homes, rebuilding water and sanitation systems, and feeding people was not going to be enough. To get this recovery right, our work had to be about how ordinary Haitians who had lost so much could lead their own reconstruction in a dignified and sustainable way. If so, then Haitians had a real chance to emerge from generations of poverty and a dependence on handouts in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Let's be clear — it might have been easier to quickly spend the $140 million that Catholic Relief Services raised. But nothing would have been more irresponsible. Precisely because the need was so great, the money would have disappeared, leaving little behind.

So while on our October visit we were impressed by row after row of newly completed homes — more than 10,000 of them, primarily funded by USAID through the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance — we were more impressed that neighbors had helped neighbors build them. That Mrs. Pierre George of the Delmas 62 community was assisted by young neighbors who hardly gave her the time of day before the earthquake. They helped her clear her plot of rubble and, with the watchful assistance of CRS' local masons and carpenters, build her house.

Empowering communities to help themselves produced the most powerful results. CRS had never worked in the neighborhood of Solino, but thanks to the persistence of a few of the residents, we looked into how we could assist. With every rain, Solino's damaged homes were flooded by garbage and filth due to drainage canals clogged with debris. So CRS employed dozens of residents to clean them.

Happy with this improvement, these same folks asked if we could help reconstruct homes. Once the people of Solino started, there was no stopping them: Canals were cleared, homes rebuilt, sanitation improved and businesses started with small investments. It showed the kind of powerful difference you can make when you work from the bottom up, community by community. There are no shortcuts. It takes time.

Job creation is key in Haiti, and CRS is providing loans, grants and business training to hundreds of entrepreneurs. Leopold Louis Guimard lost his house and his home-based bakery in the earthquake and spent months living with virtually nothing. CRS worked with Mr. Guimard and his community, building him a transitional shelter which today doubles as his bakery. With a $500 small business grant, Mr. Guimard bought an industrial-sized sifter and enough 100-pound bags of flour to once again fire up his gas oven. Today, he is back in business with five employees.

Such programs provide the kind of change that Haiti needs, but without the powerful post-earthquake images of rescuing a victim from a collapsed house, or handing out food to despairing residents of a makeshift tent city.

Neither CRS nor any other organization can solve all of Haiti's myriad problems. But, two years in, we are spending donations wisely, in a way that will have a powerful and lasting effect.

Ken Hackett recently retired as president of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services and was succeeded by Carolyn Woo. They visited Haiti together in October 2011. They can be contacted at president@crs.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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