It is easy to visit Haiti and see only poverty. But when I visited recently with former President Bill Clinton, we saw opportunity.
Yes, Haiti remains desperately poor. It has yet to fully recover from last year’s devastating hurricanes, not to mention decades of malign dictatorship. Yet we can report what President René Préval told us: “Haiti is at a turning point.” It can slide backwards into darkness and deeper misery, sacrificing all the country’s progress and hard work with the United Nations and international community. Or it can break out, into the light toward a brighter and more hopeful future.
Next month, major international donors will gather in Washington to consider further help for this unfortunate land, so battered by forces beyond its control. Outwardly, there seems little cause of optimism. The financial crisis has crimped aid budgets. Haiti’s own problems — runaway population growth, acute shortages of food and life’s basic necessities, environmental degradation — often appear insuperable.
Yet in fact, Haiti stands a better chance than almost any emerging economy, not only to weather the current economic storms but to prosper. The reason: new U.S. trade legislation, passed last year, throws open a huge window of opportunity.
HOPE II, as the act is known, offers Haiti duty-free, quota-free access to U.S. markets for the next nine years. No other nation enjoys a similar advantage. This is a foundation to build on. It is a chance to consolidate the progress Haiti has made in winning a measure of political stability, with the help of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, and move beyond aid to genuine economic development. Given the country’s massive unemployment, particularly among youth, that means one thing above all else: jobs.
My special adviser on Haiti, the Oxford University development economist Paul Collier, has worked with the government to devise a strategy. It identifies specific steps and policies to create those jobs, with particular emphasis on the country’s traditional strengths — the garment industry and agriculture. Among them: enacting new regulations lowering port fees (among the highest in the Caribbean) and creating the sort of industrial “clusters” that have come to dominate global trade.
In practical terms, this means dramatically expanding the country’s export zones, so that a new generation of textile firms can invest and do business in one place. By creating a market sufficiently large to generate economies of scale, they can drive down production costs and, once a certain threshold is crossed, spark potentially explosive growth constrained only by the size of the labor pool.
That may seem ambitious in a country of 9 million people, where 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day and half of the food is imported. Yet we know it can work. We have seen it happen in Bangladesh, which boasts a garment industry supporting 2.5 million jobs. We have seen it happen in Uganda and Rwanda.
President Clinton and I saw many good signs during our trip, both large and small. One day we visited an elementary school in Cité Soleil, a slum in Port au Prince long controlled by violent gangs before U.N. peacekeepers reclaimed it.
It did my heart good to see these children. They were well-fed, thanks to the U.N. World Food Program. Even better, they were happy and they were learning — as children should. It was a sign of more normal times.
We visited a second school, as well — this one for gifted students called HELP, short for the Haitian Education Leadership Program. With money raised privately in the United States, it provides scholarships to the very poorest Haitian children who could not otherwise dream of attending university. All these young people go on to lead productive careers. They make good salaries. They embark upon lives of promise — and virtually all of them stay in Haiti.
I told these young people that I thought of them as “seeds of hope,” for they represent a better tomorrow.
To an outsider, it is striking how modest the obstacles are in relation to Haiti’s potential. Visiting a clean and efficient factory in the capital, we met workers earning $7 a day making T-shirts for export — vaulting them into the Haitian middle class. Under HOPE II, the owner figures he can double or triple production within a year.
All this is why, in Washington, we will be asking donors to invest in Haiti, to step beyond traditional humanitarian aid. This is Haiti’s moment, a break-out opportunity for one of the poorest nations to lift itself toward a future of real economic prospects and genuine hope.