Is Cash-for-Work working?

Haiti Grassroots Watch journalists – in Port-au-Prince and at five community radio stations across the country – interviewed CFW staff, economists and aid workers, and studied documents from non-governmental organizations (NGOs)[1] and agencies implementing cash-for-work (CFW) and food-for-work (FFW) programs.

Haiti Grassroots Watch found that most workers were happy to have a CFW job. Journalists also found examples of corruption and mismanagement:

•    A work crew was managed by a motor cycle taxi-driver who was the cousin of the “peasant leader” and it had at least one under-age worker. (Perèy)

•    In at least two places, workers reported having to pay a “finder’s fee” – 500 gourdes  and 1,500 gourdes, respectively – in exchange for getting a job. (Perèy and Carrefour-Feuilles)

•    Work crews frequently had fewer workers than they were supposed to, were often seen not working and frequently knocked off work early. (Port-au-Prince and other places)

•    An incumbent candidate from the ruling Initè political party controlled the hiring of CFW workers for many crews. (Léogane)

But Haiti Grassroots Watch’s other findings – related to the effects of CFW – are more concerning than these examples of corruption.

Some effects perhaps not planned for:

1 – Undermining the concept of “work”

CFW programs are infamously under and even un-productive. One foreign CFW coordinator called them “Cash for Standing Around and Doing Nothing.”

This phenomena is not unique to Haiti. In the US, even though the Conservation Corps or Work Projects Administration produced lasting structures and employed hundreds of writers and artists, the WPA also had nicknames like "We Piddle Around" and "Whistle, Piss and Argue gang" because its road crews were not always productive.




   Walker Evans,
   for the Farm Security
   Administration, a New
   Deal program, showed the

   country and the world the

   faces of rural poverty in
   the U.S.




Haitian economists and even some CFW impelenters are worried about the long term effects of CFW programs.

“I worry that we’re creating maybe a bad work ethic because I think that you see a lot of cash for work teams all over the city and the country and if you watch, those work teams aren’t necessarily working,” said Deb Ingersoll, CFW Coordinator for American Refugee Committee.  “I worry that we’re providing… a visual association of working with not necessarily working hard.”

Haitian economist Camille Chalmers agreed.

“They know that they are earning money doing something that is not really work. They are very aware of this. You see it clearly when you see people working on the rubble piles. They pick up one block or rock at a time… it creates a kind of deformation in peoples heads about what work should be,” Chalmers told Haiti Grassroots Watch.

2 – Undermining government legitimacy and allowing foreign NGOs and agencies to take the government’s place

Already in a report on the first three months of relief efforts, experts noted that CFW programs, whose workers often wear tee-shirts sporting NGO logos, might be undermining “government legitimacy.”

In interviews in the capitol and the countryside, Haiti Grassroots Watch found a growing disregard for the government (although, to be fair, this disregard predates January 12) along with a growing expectation that people’s basic needs and services can and should be met by foreign NGOs rather than the government.

“Our future lies with NGOs! We can’t count on the government. If it were for the government, we would be dead already. Nobody from the state has ever come here,” said Romel François, a CFW manager at the Terrain Acra camp in the capitol, home to 5,000 families. “We basically don’t have a government in this country.

“Whatever program that comes our way, we’ll do it,” said Wilson Pierre, head of the Perèy Peasant Association, currently running a 600-job program for Mercy Corps. “If it's work, and we get paid, we’ll do it… I think these jobs should be permanent.”

These attitudes are “very concerning,” Chalmers noted.

“This system of ‘humanitarian economy’ or ‘emergency economy’… is locking the country into a ‘humanitarian approach’ and a dependency on aid…

There is a growing disconnect between what people think they can do as citizens because more and more roles are being played by NGOs and international actors in all domains... It also legitimizes the presence of international actors in all the domains.”

And that might be a sought-after result, according to Chalmers.

“Look at the Collier report,” he noted.

Chalmers was referring to Haiti: From Natural Catastrophe to Economic Security, written for the UN by British economist Paul Collier in 2009, and which lays out an economic plan the Haitian government and UN agencies appear to have used as the blueprint for post-January 12 Haiti. Collier recommends that NGOs and the private sector provide basic health and education services since “scaling up public provision is not a viable solution: the problems of the public sector are deep-seated and it is not realistic to expect that they can be addressed quickly.”

A more recent paper by the RAND Corporation, a frequent U.S. State Department contractee, makes the same recommendation.

Turning to the sought-after objectives, what did Haiti Grassroots Watch find?

1 - Objective – Relaunch Economy

One stated objective of CFW programs is to get people working for cash, which is then spent on necessities, and thus contributes to a “relaunching” of the economy.

Whose economy?

While Haiti Grassroots Watch cannot determine what role CFW programs have played in getting the economy moving, one thing is certain: sidewalks and streets in the capital are crammed with vendors hawking mostly imported goods. While USAID appears to define this kind of economic activity – selling cast-off shoes and imported underwear – as “success” [see this report – PDF].

Image from a recent USAID report.

“The main impact of CFW is on the circulation of money,” Haitian economist Gerald Chéry told Haiti Grassroots Watch. “Whenever there is a big crisis in an economy… they always look for temporary measures to create work so people can have revenues.”

However, Chéry noted, whereas giving people revenues creates demand, the question needs to be posed – Demand for what?

“We need the money to circulate in Haiti, not leave Haiti to go to another country. The money needs to stay in Haiti so that it will create work. You don’t want to pay someone and the person then buys, but another country, not Haiti, benefits,” Chéry said.

And yet in Haiti today, that is exactly what is happening.

Studies by Oxfam and others indicate that CFW beneficiaries spend about one-half the CFW salaries on food and/or on goods to resell in the street, with the rest spent mostly on rent, school fees, paying off debts and other expenses. 

Chart from Oxfam report on how clients used cash-for-work salaries

If one-half of CFW money is spent on food and goods, the ones getting the boost in this recession-battered world economy are outside of Haitian borders.

Haiti buys more than half of its food overseas, so a great deal of CFW cash is going to Haiti’s trading partners, the largest of whom is the US. In 2008 Haiti bought almost US$1 billion in goods from its northern neighbor – US$325 million went for food.

Is the salary sufficient?

Nobody interviewed – by Haiti Grassroots Watch or by the NGOs who have conducted studies – thinks that the 200 gourdes a day is sufficient.

“It helps out, but not that much. It’s just a minimum,” said 19-year-old Lorde Jordany, a worker near Maniche in the southern part of the country.

In that Catholic Relief Services-run program, after one month workers get a sack of wheat, a sack of beans and vegetable oil. Jordany said he’ll sell it all and should get about 3,200 gourdes, or about US$81, in return, meaning that he will have earned about 160 gourdes, less than the official minimum salary of 200 gourdes a day. (Note – Haiti Grassroots Watch tried repeatedly to confirm these figures with CRS but never got the information promised.)

Economists, human rights advocates and even implementing NGOs agree that 200 gourdes is not sufficient.

“We’re finding that people are not really making enough to really meet all of their needs,” noted Ingersoll.

A 2008 study conducted by the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium which took into account caloric needs, rent, schooling, energy, food and other costs of living, determined a living wage for one adult with two minor dependents to be 15,244.48 gourdes per month, or about 548.30 gourdes (about US$13.88) a day.

What happens in the countryside?

One of the problems with earlier FFW programs in Haiti was that agricultural production suffered because peasants left their plots in order work on a crew.

In 2010, Haiti Grassroots Watch discovered the same phenomena, although admittedly in some regions October is a slow period. Nevertheless, few peasants would admit that their presence on the work crew would hurt their agricultural production. Many claimed that they would work their fields after an eight-hour work day in the Caribbean sun, or “really intensely” on Saturdays instead.

But one agronomist, Philippe Céloi, who was supervising the six-month Catholic Relief Services FFW program near Maniche, admitted that most of his 468 workers were peasants. The workers – who spend a month on a crew – are building contours on hillsides and doing other watershed management-related tasks.

“After six months there will be benefits – not only the workers have gotten a salary but also the community benefits,” Céloi said.

Asked about farmers’ fields however, Céloi admitted there was a down side to the program.

“Yes there are disadvantages also. For example, these people are not doing the planting they ought to be doing. Right now it’s bean season… And they aren’t planting potatoes or manioc or sorghum, so when this program ends, there is going to be a problem because people won’t be able to find real food to eat… Then, these people will be in a difficult situation.” 

2 - Objective – Employ camp residents and displaced people in the countryside

In the capitol, the program camp residents appear to the main beneficiaries of CFW programs.

In the countryside however, Haiti Grassroots Watch was unable to find one single displaced person or host family member working a CFW or FFW job. According to community radio journalists in Maniche, Fondwa and Papaye, very few displaced people remain in their rural communities.


Chart showing where UN authorities think refugees are located, although anecdotal evidence uncovered by Haiti Grassroots Watch indicates these number might be off.

Therefore, many of those working outside of the capitol are peasants, youth and older people who got the jobs via their church, a local grassroots group, or through their connections to a candidate or another local  “leader,” who personally handed out work cards. In some places, local officials complained that the program gave them problems since it caused “jealousy” in the communities.

3 - Objective – Political Stability

Only one CFW document that Haiti Grassroots Watch obtained spells out this political objective – “stability” – in black-and-white, and claims success.

The USAID Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), which through June 30, had spent over $20 million on CFW programs, via two subcontractors – Chemonics and Development Alternatives Incorporated – had as one of its primary goals to “support the Government of Haiti, promote stability, and decrease chances of unrest.” [See page 1 of this USAID audit.]

In the same document, responding to criticism from the auditor that USAID-funded CFW programs were not removing as much rubble as they could, Robert Jenkins, Acting Director of USAID-Haiti as well as the AID/OTI, wrote this:

“OTI’s strategic objective in Haiti was and is to support stabilization in a changing and volatile environment. The initial means (tactics) to this end were numbers of workers and rubble removal. The underlying assumptions in this regard were: (1) Workers (particularly young males) were less likely to resort to violence if employed; (2) Infusions of ready cash in the poorest neighborhoods would likely have a salutary effect; (3) Rubble removal, again in the poorest neighborhoods, was highly symbolic because if offered hope of return to some form of normalcy.”

Jenkins also noted that the programs were “clearly branded as a Government of Haiti initiative.” This means that, objectively, in an election year, they supporting the incumbent party and its candidate, Jude Célestin.


    USAID cash for work jobsites in the greater metropolitan area of the capital as of April 13, 2010.

Not surprisingly, there have been clashes over CFW in some neighborhoods, including clashes between apparently pro-Celestin CFW workers and supporters of other candidates who said they have been barred from jobs. “Cash for work is cash for vote!” one group of demonstrators shouted in late October.

It looks like "cash for work" is working…

So in the long run… do the CFW programs in Haiti “prevent revolution” and “save capitalism”?

Demonstrators in Mexico City in 1985.

Certainly there have not been the kinds of major demonstrations like the ones post-earthquake Mexico witnessed in 1985. Within two weeks of that devastating catastrophe, thousands were marching in the streets to make their demands for decent housing heard.

Perhaps the “stabilization” effect is one reason the Haitian government is asking agencies and NGOs to continue and even augment their programs?

A draft “Operating Manual” from the Haitian government’s “Job Creation Program to Improve Food Security” (PCEASA), released in March 2010 [download PDF here] doesn’t mention that outcome. Instead, it claims the CFW jobs will “relaunch the economy,” “improve food security,” “clean up the environment” and “relaunch food production.”

However, as Haiti Grassroots Watch’s investigation, the 1997 study and other work has showed, in the long run CFW programs don’t contribute to any of those objectives... but history shows they’re not a total waste of money either.


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1. The term “non-governmental organization” is a misnomer in many cases, since these organizations often receive large contracts directly from foreign governments. However, since the term “NGO” is used by CFW workers, Haiti Grassroots Watch will use it in this case.