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Settling in at Haiti

10 June 2010 by Sam

woman with food packages

Haitian woman given support by the Oxfam Livelihoods project to restock her business after losing everything, including her home, in the earthquake.

Here’s an update from Clare Wolfarth’s second week of her sabbatical helping out Oxfam in Haiti on how she found settling into the new role:


“There is always a lot to get used to in a new job and it’s not too surprising to find that there are significant challenges in working in a developing country whose fragile infrastructure has recently been all but destroyed.

The HR team here has spent the past four months responding to the enormous demands that an emergency scale up generates. In a country where the official unemployment rate is between 70 to 80 %, the chance to work for an international NGO (non governmental organisation) such as Oxfam represents a potentially life changing opportunity for many Haitians. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the office was inundated with people dropping off their CVs for consideration to a point where full crowd control measures needed to be taken to ensure public safety. The team received over 3,000 CVs in the first few days after the office reopened and stopped counting at 20,000 at the end of the first week, although the total received is estimated to be double to triple that.

We now have about 400 local staff and many more employed on a daily basis to support the programme in positions such as community mobilisers. Oxfam’s main programmes here are water and sanitation, public health, emergency food security and livelihoods, and shelter. The priority is to support the earthquake survivors to stay well and healthy and to rebuild their lives after the disaster, and particularly to assist the most vulnerable such as the elderly, those with disabilities or orphans. Many people who lost their homes have congregated in makeshift camps where conditions can quickly deteriorate into squalor without proper sanitation and clean water supplies; particularly now it is the rainy season. So far, Oxfam has already helped over 300,000 people and has plans to reach more than 600,000 over the next three to five years of its recovery programme here.

From a HR perspective, ensuring that all the systems are set up, trying to recruit staff into the remaining positions when skilled workers are in short supply and in great demand and ensuring Oxfam remains fully compliant with local employment law is challenging. Although I do my written work in English, I still have to speak French with the local staff and even then I sometimes need a translator as some of them only speak Creole. All the contracts and legal documents are in French so I have the pocket dictionary my Gran bought me before I came out on my desk at all times!

We are currently working in a building that used to be a school (see photo below) but there isn’t enough space so lots of people sit at desks outside with laptops in what used to be the playground. Even the climbing frame is used as storage place for some of the HR files. The internet connection is slow and unreliable and can go down for up to an hour at a time which can be really frustrating.

There’s no air conditioning but we do have electric fans and a generator to keep them going when the power supply fails. My day at the office starts at 7am and finishes around 5.30pm and we’re currently still working six days a week so it’s tiring work but immensely rewarding on so many levels. I love working with the local staff and the expatriate staff here are from all over the world so I’m part of a rich and diverse team.

I feel a long way from National Museums Liverpool but am very grateful for all the support from friends, family and colleagues back home – and am still very glad to be here.”

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