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Aid in action

"Aid in action" Continued...

Issue: "After the revolution," Feb. 26, 2011

Though the ministry does offer other relief efforts through a medical clinic and a cafeteria that serves hundreds of meals to workers each day, Angus says that fostering productivity instead of dependency is central: "If people want to help Haitians, we have to stop thinking about short-term improvements, and start thinking long-term."

Art Spalding is also thinking long-term. Spalding-the only American on staff-is a missionary who helps oversee a church and a school with 500 students. Teaching Haitian workers and church members a biblical view of work in a country where work is undervalued by low wages and a struggling economy is central to Spalding's efforts. "We have to go teach this: that God has put me here to accomplish a job, and that's to glorify Him-whether that's working out in the fields or producing fish or fixing a tractor. . . . Let that be the goal of my life: ministry in whatever vocation to which God calls me."

Nearly two hours southwest of Port-au-Prince, along Haiti's southern peninsula, signs of widespread agricultural efforts are scant. Small-scale rice farmers tend plots of low-lying paddy fields, but most Haitians in the rural community of Cadiac focus on modest efforts that drive the market economy: small gardens, handfuls of animals, buying and reselling goods like clothing or sandals.

Beyond the hand-to-mouth lifestyle, hundreds of local residents are doing something counterintuitive to many Haitians with few resources: saving money.

In a busy outdoor market teeming with clothing, bread, chickens, shoes, eggplants, cooking oil, and candy, Janin Trismesin stands behind a long table full of butchered pork, talking about how saving money has improved the business she's operated for years.

Nearby, other sellers with long machetes chop fat from freshly slaughtered pigs, and line goat heads along wheelbarrows full of the fresh meat. Animals can be a form of currency, and Trismesin says saving money has allowed her to buy and sell more. "It's not easy to save money," she says. "Only with the group."

Trismesin's group is a local savings group organized by HOPE International, a Pennsylvania-based Christian organization that helps Haitians and thousands of poverty-stricken workers in 14 countries worldwide use the resources God has already given them.

Though the organization sometimes uses a mission compound in Cadiac, it doesn't maintain official headquarters, vehicles, full-time staff, or even signs in the small town. "It's a success for us if they don't even know who our organization is," HOPE staffer Katie Straight says of the villagers.

Instead, HOPE sends staffers to meet with local pastors who agree to promote the program in their churches and identify community members able to teach courses and facilitate meetings. HOPE supplies material and training for the facilitators, using a curriculum from the Chalmers Center for Economic Development that emphasizes the centrality of the gospel for addressing material and spiritual poverty.

The result is an effort organized and executed on a local level by local churches and residents. (HOPE provides oversight with periodic visits and with Esperanza, a Christian development organization with offices in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.)

In northern Haiti, the group conducts microfinance programs, offering small loans of $50-$100 to local residents at a reasonable interest rate. But in Cadiac, where many residents live on a more subsistence level, that kind of loan doesn't make sense if Haitians may be unable to repay, says Straight: "Microfinancing gone wrong is putting another burden on the backs of the poor."

Here the approach to finances is simpler: Each member of a rotating savings group brings a fixed amount of money each week. A weekly payout of the group's full amount rotates between each member until every member has been paid. Accumulating savings groups save money over a longer period of time, with the option of making loans to members of the group.

Group members save anywhere from $.25 to $2.50 a week-admittedly miniscule results by North American standards, but substantial savings for low-wage Haitians who have often never saved money.

Off Cadiac's main road, in a one-room rental house with no plumbing or electricity, Marimat Batis arranges chairs near two single beds and talks about saving money for the first time in her life. Batis, who lives here with her four children, sells clothes in the market. She's using her modest savings for a long-term goal. "I'm buying sand," she says with a smile. "I will build a house."

Owning a home will allow Batis to stop paying rent and eventually save more money. She says she's committed to continuing, though the process could take a long time: "Only God knows."

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