When I saw the announcement of Haiti's conference on extreme poverty this week, it took me back to my first trip there.
Driving through the streets of Haiti in July 2010, it felt like driving through a war zone. Buildings were collapsed in on themselves. Piles of rubble were colored by bits and pieces of people's lives -- a red shirt, a child's doll, a book, littered the streets. Goats and pigs rooted for food in gutters overflowing with garbage. Skinny dogs trotted through the streets oblivious to traffic. Shirtless men with wheelbarrels and hand tools hacked away at destroyed homes in an attempt to clear the site and build again.
Yet against all that destruction, children skipped and ran through the streets dressed in crisp plaid uniforms and blinding white shirts. Little girls with bright bows matching their uniforms marched hand in hand alongside a parent. Women headed to work dressed in summer suits and heels. As I marveled at the dichotomy an image that remains burned in my psyche caught my eye.
An apartment building stood tall against a sea of rubble. Its street-facing wall was completely gone, giving it the look of a dollhouse. Most rooms were empty; their contents lay in a pile at the base of the building. One room contained a mattress. One floor above it was a room with a sink lying on its side. On the second floor, two rooms in from the left stood two men, a father and son, I think. The son was dressed in charcoal pants with razor-sharp creases. His crisp shirt was black with white pinstripes and long sleeves. His father, dressed in shabby khaki pants and a bright white sleeveless undershirt, was adjusting the son's tie. There was nothing else in the room. Just a father sending his son off to school or work, making sure he looked his best.
Looking at them, I wondered how it is that, after over 40 years and billions of dollars in foreign aid and remittances, Haiti is still the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It can't just be natural disasters. Mexico and the Bahamas have suffered horrible natural disasters, and yet they manage to rebuild quickly and better. It can't be location. The Dominican Republic shares half the island, and yet it is a hot tourist destination. It can't be just be a corrupt government. The alleged embezzlement of former leaders pales compared to the accusations against the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao whose family went from poverty to controlling $2.7 billion in assets in 15 years. China's government's corruption is legendary. Its human rights violations are atrocious. Yet its economy is growing, and a middle class is, albeit very slowly, emerging. It can't be some innate cultural defect, because Haitians who leave Haiti are very successful. Michaëlle Jean, former governor-general of Canada; Reggie Fils-Aime, president and COO of Nintendo; and Mia Love, the daughter of Haitian immigrants and charismatic Utah mayor, are just a few success stories.
Certainly it could be all of the above. But given the immense role the international community plays in Haiti, how could an all-of-the-above scenario exist? Is it possible that Haiti's growth inhibitor is actually the type of foreign aid and level of assistance it receives? Could the key to transforming Haiti into a productive state and contributing member of the global economy be reducing aid and foreign assistance? If so, what would take its place?
One only needs drive through a few streets of Port-au-Prince to realize Haitians, even the most poor and illiterate, are an entrepreneurial people. One only need sit at the lobby bar of the Karibe to gain an understanding of the tremendous opportunity foreign corporations see in Haiti. Growth is not inhibited by lack of desire. There is something else at work.
The Martelly-Lamothe government clearly believes in the power of the free market. But, there are critical questions that must be answered for their policy of economic diplomacy to succeed. Can the free market and charity coexist? Are foreign aid organizations willing to work themselves out of a job? What will it take to assure the international business community Haiti is a reasonable risk? How will Haiti balance attracting international business with protecting its own private sector?
The questions aren't easy, but the time to answer them is now.