Cornelia Janke just returned from her 10th trip to Haiti, where EDC is working to improve job opportunities for youth. It’s an enormous challenge in a country with 70 percent unemployment. After 13 years of visiting the island nation, she says the level of poverty is still shocking.
“Traveling into Port au Prince, you first notice the density of the population—and the slums. In the countryside, what should be a lush tropical paradise is actually steep, rocky, denuded hills, filled with subsistence farmers trying to eke out a living. Drinking water is in short supply. Basic nourishment is a challenge.
In the past year, the country has suffered mudslides, landslides, and flooding, and it’s still recovering from last year’s hurricanes. In the cities, most construction is poor. Homes are squares of cinder blocks, with flat roofs, no windows or doors—just doorways—no plumbing. In the countryside, there is a mix of simple cinder-block homes and even more basic dwellings made of whatever materials are available.
Despite the challenges, there is also so much potential. Haitians are hard working and value education. Haiti is also rich in artistic talent. There are hundreds of street stands selling paintings and lovely hammered metal work. Part of our project there is to help artisans and others develop the skills and markets to create viable micro businesses, selling arts and crafts or other products and services.
I’ve learned that in Haiti, you measure progress in small increments. When I first visited in the mid-1990s, the roads were just terrible. Now, basic infrastructure has improved. It’s so important for people to see visible progress. At the same time, the population of Port au Prince has grown, and this growth brings with it the need for new physical and social infrastructure, and the government can’t keep up.
Our program, known as IDEJEN, targets the least-skilled youth. These are kids with no education or none past third grade—kids surely facing a hand-to-mouth existence, doing jobs such as hauling water or selling gum, cigarettes, or phone cards. Our program expands these limited options by teaching reading, writing, numeracy, life skills, and vocational skills. We will have reached more than 13,000 young people by 2010.
We work with the vocational training arm of the government—helping it expand its repertoire to be better geared to young people. We offer 20 skills training areas, not just general construction, but specialties such as tiling, masonry, framework, roofing, and plumbing. We teach the youth to transfer their skills laterally, so a young person with the electrical skills to wire a home can also do small appliance repair. Also, we vary the job skills depending on location and need. For example, we don’t want to flood the market with 500 new plumbers.
My biggest hope—and my biggest concern—is that we leave something behind that continues. We need to embed this kind of education and training in the structure of the government and the mindset of the people. We need to use our momentum to attract private investment and keep moving forward, helping the ministry offer education to those who have missed school altogether.
Education is so important here. Families have a deep cultural respect and yearning for education. Private schools have proliferated unbelievably, and parents part with meager income so their kids can go to school.
As part of our program, when the youth finish their education and vocational training with us—for which they receive certification—they enter into what we call ‘accompaniment’—a six-month period during which they pursue further formal education, or we locate a paid internship or mentor them to develop their own business.
One of the most humbling and poignant experiences I’ve had was attending a graduation ceremony for students in our program in Mirebalais. It’s very rural, and life is tough. Dirt streets, a few cinder-block homes. There’s not a lot.
When we arrived, there was a parade of youth wearing immaculate white and blue uniforms they had sewn themselves. The police chief, the priest, parent—everyone came. Most memorable for me was, at the very end, they gave out little gifts. Fruits wrapped with paper and tape—things that are hard to get. It was one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever received.
I remember the signs they put up: ‘Thank you IDEJEN for not forgetting about us.’ Does anyone need more to be passionate about their work? The people of Haiti deserve opportunity just like my kids, like all kids, do. They are not looking for handouts. They are hard working. They just need a chance and an opportunity.”
Originally published on October 27, 2009