Haiti banks to reopen, huge recovery challenge ahead

Thu Jan 21, 2010 5:58pm GMT

(For full coverage, click on [nHAITI])

* Reopening of banks will help get cash circulating

* Finance Ministry wrecked but tax, revenue records saved

* Signs of some economic activity coming back

(Adds quotes from Port-au-Prince shopkeepers)

By Catherine Bremer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Banks in earthquake-hit Haiti will start operating again from the weekend, the country's commerce minister said on Thursday, as the government worked with aid partners to start trying to get the shattered economy back on its feet.

"Banks in the provinces will open on Friday and on Saturday in Port-au-Prince," Commerce Minister Josseline Colimon Fethiere told Reuters. She said they would also be open on Sunday to allow people to withdraw money.

Some bank branches were destroyed in the Jan. 12 quake that killed tens of thousands of people and demolished large swathes of the capital, but the standing banks would share customers to ensure money flowed to the public, Colimon Fethiere said.

The International Monetary Fund has been working with donors to get cash circulating again in Haiti's economy so people can buy food and civil servants get paid, IMF officials say.

But aid officials recognize the recovery challenge is enormous in a small Caribbean state which was already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, where 70 percent of the population was living on less than $2 a day.

Some money transfer agencies were already functioning again so remittances sent by Haitians living abroad could reach desperate family members who survived the quake.

Ordinary Haitians saw a difficult future ahead.

"When the banks open that will really help, but it's going to be hard for months, even years. It will take money to rebuild and even if there's money coming in to Haiti we won't see a dime of it. The government is not going to give anyone a check," said shopkeeper Charles Jacques, 39.

His family store was so badly damaged by the quake that he was selling his stock to street hawkers.

The Haitian commerce minister said the central bank had been operating since Monday and officials had managed to salvage computer servers containing tax and revenue records from the wrecked Finance Ministry.

Colimon Fethiere said the Haitian government would maintain the state of emergency it had declared for another 15 days and then would try to work normally again.

Due to the mourning over those killed by the quake -- estimated to be at least 100,000 and possibly up to 200,000, the country's traditional Carnival in mid-February was being canceled.

SOME ECONOMIC ACTIVITY COMING BACK

In what seemed an optimistic assessment, Colimon Fethiere said she believed more than half of Haiti's economy, perhaps as much as 60 percent, could be operating by Monday, compared with 20 percent currently.

She said the main limitations had been with transport and logistics in the largely wrecked, rubble-strewn capital and some surrounding areas, but with tens of millions of dollars of international aid pouring in from all corners of the globe, some of these problems were starting to be solved.

Gasoline supplies were recovering, she said.

Trying to estimate the economic impact of the quake, IMF officials have said the cost to Haiti's economy of devastating hurricanes in 2008 was about 15 percent of gross domestic product, or $900 million. Damage from the earthquake would probably be more, although how much was not clear, they said.

Colimon Fethiere said most of Port-au-Prince's main industrial park, which housed the textile factories that are a key part of the country's manufacturing economy, was still intact. Donors believe investment in the garment industry could be a major source of revenue and jobs for Haiti.

The commerce minister said that some supermarkets in the capital -- those not destroyed -- had reopened and informal street markets were also coming back to sell food and vegetables to those who had money.

Small grocery shops and barber shops, as well as some pharmacies, were also open again, some extending credit to regular customers short of cash.

"We opened on Sunday and we had 21 clients and we've had a few every day since then. If it's someone we know, well, we'll give them credit," said barber shop owner Gilbert Altemar.

Mobile phone shops, those undamaged, did brisk business, as Haitians tried to replace phones lost in the quake.

With foreign donors offering recovery and development assistance, World Bank President Robert Zoellick told Reuters this week Haiti had some of the worst human development indicators in the world before the earthquake devastated the country and this was the "opportunity to build back better." (Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Philip Barbara)



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