03/15/2013 10:45 am ET Updated May 15, 2013

Haiti: A Hope, a Promise and an Opportunity

Last week I had the privilege of joining former President Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, and a group of private sector participants on a two-day visit to Haiti, the primary purpose being to examine opportunities for investment in the food and agricultural sectors. President Clinton has visited Haiti dozens of times in the past few years to facilitate humanitarian relief efforts after the tragic earthquake in 2010, and to encourage private sector investments in various sectors, including energy, infrastructure, health care and agriculture. His efforts to rebuild Haiti have been tireless, and it is no wonder that he was justifiably treated like a rock star everywhere we visited.

This was my first visit to Haiti, and quite frankly I had the impression that real and sustainable progress in Haiti was an impossible dream, that there was little if any private sector involvement in the economy, that crime was everywhere, that humanitarian efforts were the only thing keeping people alive, and that civil society had totally broken down. While many structural problems remain in truth it is a country on the mend with great possibilities and opportunities for American investors. Especially when one considers that nearly 3 percent of the Haitian people were killed in the earthquake, many more injured, even more homeless, and the infrastructure of the country virtually destroyed. Even in the face of this monumental catastrophe, I saw progress with my own eyes, and hope in the faces of many Haitians I met.

Haiti is still in transition to democracy with weak institutions and huge demands from a population still struggling from one of the worst natural disasters in modern history. There are monumental humanitarian and reconstruction needs after the earthquake. Elections and the reinforcement of democracy remain political challenges. Constitutional reforms have been approved, but implementation is slow. Food and nutrition remain challenging problems, especially for smallholder farmers and in rural Haiti. Reforms relating to the pricing of electricity, property rights, real estate incentives, sustainable mining techniques, and of course modern agriculture are all essential. These are all massive challenges, and I don't want to understate them. And on the ground improvements in all of these areas must continue if we want to encourage more private investment and tourism.

Nonetheless, it was clear that Haiti is now open for business. Historical impediments for private sector investment and development have remarkably improved and there are real opportunities and more favorable conditions for private sector investment. While in Haiti, President Clinton spoke at the opening of a new brewery, one of several businesses he has helped to facilitate, and announced several initiatives in conjunction with private companies to invest in a variety of food, agricultural and reforestation projects. The agricultural sector potential is particularly encouraging, as the soils are rich and fertile and will grow almost anything, and this potential will permit the commercial production of huge varieties of food and industrial crops. I also saw evidence that European, Asian and Latin American companies were beginning major investment. One of the most significant challenges the country faces is in its agriculture sector, especially re-establishing the country's forest cover, as the country's forests have been virtually demolished in recent years because of the use of timber for fuel. Reforestation, and alternative energy development, remain keys for a strong economic revival of the Haitian economy. The farming sector and agribusiness will be fundamental in the future of Haiti's success.

A new, modern Haiti must be prepared to meet national and international challenges. Modern governance and a rule of law that encourages private investment, promotes environmentally sound practices, and a country more prepared to efficiently deal with human and social needs of the population are all critical for its future. Progress is being made and worldwide government and humanitarian efforts have been helpful. The U.S. needs to keep the pressure on the Haitian government to maintain the development of its democratic institutions. One real positive development is that we were told levels of crime were materially coming down, in many cases lower than in other countries in the region, and the government was continuing to make this a high priority.

Haiti has benefitted from the goodness of American help, especially in the public and non-profit sectors. The American taxpayer has made critical contributions of food and other aid. My plane from Miami to Port-au-Prince was filled with young American humanitarian workers headed out to help in rebuilding the country. That person-to-person help has been crucial, especially in the food and housing sectors. Several American companies and their charitable arms have begun to make longer term investments in human infrastructure, but the long-term future of Haiti will be predicated on encouraging and sustaining the conditions for the private sector and the business community to invest and build a sustainable economy, and create enough jobs in the process. There is no doubt that President Clinton's personal efforts and the work of the Clinton Foundation helping the Haitian people rebuild their country have been transformational. I came back from my visit extremely encouraged by what I saw and the real progress that is being made. I only hope that our private sector, as well as the federal government and the NGO community, will maintain their commitment and follow President Clinton's leadership. It is in our national interest that Haiti continue to develop and it's also the right thing to do.

Dan Glickman served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration