After Haiti earthquake, she went to help - and hasn't leftby Tom Crann, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — It's summer in Haiti and that means oppressive heat, tropical storms and even the possibility of hurricanes.
Six months after January's earthquake left more 200,000 people dead, over a million people are still homeless. Many of them are living in crowded camps, with just tarps for shelter and no jobs or money.
Deb Ingersoll is trying to change that on a micro level. She runs the "Cash for Work" program for the American Refugee Committee in Haiti. She's a former Minnesotan who quit her job and moved to the impoverished country in the aftermath of the quake. Ingersoll discussed the relief effort Thursday by phone from Port-au-Prince.
Tom Crann: Give us an idea of what conditions the people that you serve are living in these days.
Deb Ingersoll: Most of the people that the American Refugee Committee Cash for Work program are serving live within one of our four camps. So their lives have changed, for many, very substantially. Most of them come from a home that has collapsed. Right after the quake, they found any open ground that they could to put up a temporary shelter for their own family.
And six months later, they're still there and their homes are becoming a little more permanent in many ways, but for the most part they're all people that need assistance in one way or another. And our Cash to Work program has helped to be able to give them some money for their family for their most basic needs.
Crann: It's been six months since the earthquake. You've been there regularly since March and you moved there permanently in April. How is daily life for Haitians different now than when you first arrived or than right after the earthquake?
Ingersoll: It seems now like the Haiti that we knew before the quake. In many ways, as you look around, if you can ignore the giant piles of rubble and the people living in tents, if you ignore that and you just look at daily life, it feels very much the same.
The informal market is back in full force. People are out doing the daily things they were doing before. Kids all over the country are back in uniform and going to school. The things that make me smile every day are seeing people laughing with each other and kids playing. So in many ways it feels like they're moving on.
On Monday, which is the actual six month anniversary, I think that from an organizational perspective and a media perspective, we were all looking at it as maybe a big day, but from what I learned from the average person here is that life really wasn't that much different on that day and they didn't really do all that much to commemorate.
Crann: So tell us how the Cash for Work program operates. What kind of work is being done and how much do the workers earn?
Ingersoll: We're working with a consortium of organizations that are doing cash for work to make sure that we're all treating our workers fairly and offering the same rates of pay and the same hours worked.
An average Cash for Work worker would work six hours per day. We start early because it gets so hot here that by one o'clock, most Cash for Work programs are done. The average worker makes two hundred gourde per day. That's the local currency, and that's the equivalent of about five U.S. dollars for a day's work.
And the types of work depend on exactly where you're working in the city or in the country. Most of our workers, because they're in a camp setting, are doing things like keeping the canals clean. After it rains, a lot of garbage and debris come through, so we need those cleared so we don't have floods. It could be just general garbage pick-up, and there's the unpleasant job of cleaning the latrines.
In one of our camps within the city we're also expanding out into the neighborhoods where the people were living before the earthquake and starting to clear a lot of the debris so that people can start to get back into their neighborhoods. And that's the type of work that you see most here in Haiti and that is people in the neighborhoods removing debris with shovels and wheelbarrows and buckets, that type of thing.
Crann: Are you at a stage yet where your program and others like it are making progress toward actually rebuilding the country as opposed to cleanup and relief?
Ingersoll: We're working as fast as we can toward that, but to be very honest, it's very difficult to make much of a dent with a shovel and wheelbarrow. We do have partners that we're starting to work with that have some heavy equipment that can assist and that will make a large difference.
But it's amazing what a group of people here can do. If you look at a building and right now it's a pile or rubble and two weeks later, it's a clear lot, it's pretty incredible to see the power of that group of people and see the excitement in their face when they understand what they've actually accomplished. That's been very fun.
Crann: How do the jobs and wages there compare to the jobs that some of these folks were doing before the earthquake? Or is this new work for many people?
Ingersoll: I think that for many people, they haven't been working for a long time, or people will find a job and it doesn't last for more than a few months. The wages that are typically earned here, I think the national average is somewhere between two and three hundred dollar in U.S. [dollars]. I do know that there are jobs like an engineer [where a worker] might expect to make $1,000 a year.
Crann: Those are annual rates?
Ingersoll: Yes, those are annual rates. So on a Cash for Work program, they're making substantially less than that, but it allows every single person, whether they're skilled or unskilled, the opportunity to earn enough to get several days worth of food for their family and a few of the essentials.
Crann: Since January, there's been a huge outpouring of donations to relief agencies, individual donations well above a billion dollars. But some of those agencies have only spent half of the money they've raised so far, even less in some cases. What do you make of reports we've been getting that large sums of money still haven't been used for relief efforts in Haiti?
Ingersoll: I'm working on a fairly micro level right now and so I can't really speak to the whole larger relief effort, unfortunately, but I know that there are people on the ground here who are working very, very hard and as quickly as possible to get a plan in place so that the dollars can be used to actually make a difference, to make a long-term, lasting difference.
There are programs like Cash to Work that are putting people to work every day, thousands and thousnds of people, but I think the bigger rebuilding efforts are taking a little bit longer than anybody would've anticipated.
Crann: One of the criticisms that we're hearing is that the government there hasn't really coordinated things very well. Are you seeing evidence of that?
Ingersoll: Within the Cash for Work program, I'm not necessarily interfacing as much with the government. I've heard reports of that. I personally haven't experienced it.
Crann: But I suppose it's an issue of, as you mentioned, a bigger plan. People may be frustrated with a longer term plan versus just relief and cleanup efforts.
Ingersoll: Right. I think unfortunately they are two very different things. And while I think that right now one of the most important things is that critical needs have been met, there are programs for kids, for shelter, medical care, all of those services are in place, but this is a very long term effort and the rebuilding is something that happening more slowly than people would like.
And it is extremely frustrating to be on the ground and see in six months that there hasn't been as much rubble cleared as had been planned and there hasn't been as much construction happening as you might expect.
Historically Haiti has had a lot of money in terms of aid. Maybe I shouldn't say 'a lot,' but it had money in terms of aid. But there hasn't necessarily been a plan in place to make that a long term sustainable difference. And I think what's happening right now from what I can understand is that those plans are in the works.
I donated money myself and I want to know what is the money going for and I want to be able to see what it did. And I think they're really working to make sure that happens, but from a spectator's perspective, I know I have my family back in Minnesota asking all the time, 'So why isn't anything happening?'
And I can tell you being on the ground here you can see that things are happening, but if you look at the big picture, it is a very different picture. It is harder to see the discernible difference, if that makes any sense.
Crann: Yes, I in terms of on the micro level you're seeing things, programs like yours having some affect, but still there's a lot to do on the macro level.
Ingersoll: There is a lot, and [it's] one of the coping mechanisms that I've had to develop over the past eight or nine years. I started volunteering in Haiti in 2002, and if you look at that whole big picture, if you look at the country as a whole, and all of the things that need to be done here to make it a better place for people to live, work, raise their family, if you look at that, you can easily get discouraged and frustrated and feel hopeless.
Crann: So what keeps you from doing that?
Ingersoll: What I have learned to do is to find joy in the little wins -- the little wins become big victories -- and finding a niche. And so for me, that's Cash for Work. I can focus on what I'm doing every day and judge the world around me from that perspective and it allows me to be able to see the difference that's being made.
I think that most people that are working here are doing the same thing. And if you add up all of those small differences that people are making, it becomes a pretty large win together.
Crann: What do you think needs to happen in the country that isn't happening, from your view, that would alleviate some of the frustrations that you and other works there must be feeling from time to time about the progress?
Ingersoll: I think that when a vision or a big strategic plan is in place, everyone will feel a little bit more relief and a little bit more settled in how what they're doing is going to fit into that plan.
Right now it feels a little piecemeal, like we're all taking part, but we need the big sum, and [we'll have that] once the strategic plan or the vision for the country is in place. I know that there are many, many people far, far above me that are working on that. The U.S. government has been very involved. The Haitian government has been working on it with some mentorship.
One of the challenges that's in place is President [Rene] Preval, his term in office is coming to an end and elections need to happen this fall. And we know from experience in the U.S. when it comes to the end of a term, the office or the government isn't necessarily as effective as they are when they first come into office.
Crann: Do you think the elections might provide a chance for a bit of hope there and some progress?
Ingersoll: It sure feels like it. I know that people are feeling quite optimistic at the chance for a leader, a new leader in Haiti and people in the government that understand what needs to be done and can make it happen.
Crann: You and your husband decided to move to Haiti permanently. What made you make that decision?
Ingersoll: We'd been volunteering here for quite a while, several years, and have grown to respect the Haitian people and we have a lot of friends here now. When the earthquake happened, we knew that we've been very fortunate in our lives and haven't had as much opportunity to give back to other people as we would've liked. And it felt like a natural time to do that.
We both had jobs that we really enjoyed and a lot of friends and family and coworkers that we had to leave behind, but everybody's been very supportive of it, and we just feel very lucky that we were able to take the opportunity to do this.
Crann: Have there been times in these past few months where you've wondered if you should come back to Minnesota? Has it been overwhelming?
Ingersoll: I would be lying if I said no, but never for more than a few minutes. It's where we want to be and we know we need to be. So if there's a rough day, it's just like back in the States, where you have a rough day at work and you come home and you do some yoga and you do whatever it is that helps you relax and then you come back to being centered and realizing this is where really where you need to be.
The thing for me that has been the hardest is feeling very disconnected from friends and family and trying to make that easier. Skype was a great solution when we had stable internet, but that hasn't necessarily been the case recently, so trying to stay in touch really makes a difference for me.
All I have to do is put it into the perspective of what an average day in the life of a person who has been through the quake [was like] and what their life is now and I realize that I really have it pretty good. So I'm glad to be here.
(Interview transcribed and edited by MPR News reporter Madeleine Baran.)