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Group seeks to help Haiti by wiring its economy

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s Jason Duquette-Hoffman was pleased to see the world community respond with food, medical aid and other critical services to help Haiti through the devastation wrought by last January’s major earthquake.
But Duquette-Hoffman realizes that the lifeline the world has collectively thrown to Haiti, a perennially impoverished country, won’t last forever. That’s why he and some colleagues recently created webPrentice International, a nonprofit program designed gather computers — along with the software and training needed to use them — to help Haitians promote the small, homegrown businesses that might emerge form the rubble of Port-au-Prince.
“We believe the next Haitian economy will be built on a 21st-century foundation, with a uniquely Haitian flavor,” said Duquette-Hoffman, who co-founded webPrentice with associates Kevin Hytten and Chanon Bernstein. The trio’s effort is also receiving support from the Vermont Haiti Project, an established humanitarian outreach organization in the Caribbean nation.
Duquette-Hoffman earned his graduate degree in community development and applied economics from the University of Vermont. He currently handles purchasing and marketing for several small businesses and helps manage the Consumer Assistance Program at UVM, but has always wanted to apply his skills to an economic development cause on the international stage.
He, like others throughout the world, watched the heartrending images of the earthquake devastation in Haiti. He noted the quick dispatch of life preserving services, but he began to think about what would happen next in Haiti after the healing was well under way.
“Life goes on,” Duquette-Hoffman said, adding the devastation has presented Haiti with an opportunity for a kind of renaissance.
“If there is an opportunity out of this earthquake, it’s for Haiti to basically rebuild itself in the vision of what it wants to be.”
That rebuilding process in Haiti, from a technological standpoint, could receive a boost from what is likely to be a lengthy presence of international relief organizations, according to Duquette-Hoffman.
“They are going to require Internet connectivity and they are going to require other kinds of infrastructure,” said Duquette-Hoffman, who believes Haitians have the opportunity to use that foreign investment for the long-term betterment of their economy — specifically in the germination of small businesses.
“Micro-enterprise is where it starts and what keeps people fed,” Duquette-Hoffman said.
Internet access and computer skills, he reasoned, could give Haitians a boost in establishing, promoting and sustaining their businesses — as well as giving them access to the global marketplace if and when they are ready to make that leap.
With that in mind, webPrentice is asking for donations of operable laptops (built in 2005 or later) that will be sent to Haiti to a computer lab where residents will be tutored in the use of technology and how it can be used to improve their lives — through building Web sites and building entrepreneurial skills, among other things.
Duquette-Hoffman said the Vermont Haiti Project is helping scout potential locations for the computer lab, along with technicians to help staff it. Plans call for webPrentice to set up a computer technology curriculum that the Haitian computer students will be able to access at the lab.
Start-up costs for the webPrentice program will be around $150,000, according to Duquette-Hoffman. That figure assumes around 25-30 donated laptops and two on-site staffers and a manager that would have proficiency in English and French/Creole.
If all goes well, webPrentice hopes to begin training people by mid-winter. And if the program takes off, organizers hope to replicate the program in other developing nations throughout the world.
“We hope everyone will come, see what we are all about and join us as we work to help the people of Haiti,” Duquette-Hoffman said.
Anyone interested in learning more about webPrentice and/or how to contribute to the effort can contact Duquette-Hoffman at 989-1618, or visit www.webprentice.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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