Pedicures in Haitian tent cities

We usually think of displacement as an economically disempowering phenomenon. The residents flee from war or natural disasters with just the shirts on their backs, arrive in a new place without much in the way of orientation. How could anyone make any kind of money?

Last night on PBS’ News Hour, Adam Davidson of planet money presented a piece on the surprising economy of a displacement camp in Haiti. Evidently, the transformation from “collection of tents” to a real, functioning “tent city” has begun. There are evidently many good examples. Pedicures, for instance:

At the beginning, it was the basics, food, water, clothes. Then business expanded beyond the essentials. A week after the earthquake, Yoleen Samard went to her old salon, which had collapsed entirely, and rescued whatever beauty products she could. She brought them back.

Her husband cleaned out a space in their tent, and now she’s in business.

These customers, both 18 years old, say they can convince their parents to pay for a pedicure about every two weeks.

I once talked to a refugee kid from the Central African Republic living in a camp in southern Chad and asked him if he could do anything to make money. “I rent DVD’s.” Somebody had a DVD player and a generator, they sold tickets… so they needed someone to rent DVD’s.

None of this should make anyone think that displaced persons aren’t in desperate shape. But also don’t make the assumption that everybody’s just sitting around either. As I’m not an economist, I don’t know of any good research on what makes for relative success in displacement camps and what makes for “just sitting around,” but it seems to me a promising area of study for those interested in aid programming.

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