Sue Montgomery, The Gazette
January 14, 2013
They were lured with scrumptious, melt-in-your-mouth cake balls made with Barbancourt rum and Rebo coffee from their beloved Haiti. It was an evening — called Je Love Haiti — to celebrate all that is good about the country, which on Saturday marks the third anniversary of a devastating earthquake that brought it to its knees and drew an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy from around the world.
Young, fashionable and ambitious members of the diaspora gathered Wednesday in the hip Factory bar on the Main to sip prosecco with kir and nibble on salmon tartare, as images flashed on screens of a Haiti that most observers might guess were taken in a long-ago era when the country was considered the Pearl of the Antilles — or even shot in another country altogether. Pristine beaches, turquoise water, crashing waterfalls, gourmet dishes, laughing children.
Absent were any of the bleak and depressing images the world has been inundated with since the earthquake that flattened the capital city, Port-au-Prince, killing and injuring hundreds of thousands and leaving another 1.5 million homeless. There was no talk of that at Je Love Haiti, where the mood was upbeat and positive, as was the message.
“What I ask you to be is a brand ambassador of Haiti,” Martine St-Victor, a young Montrealer of Haitian origin and organizer of the event, told the plugged-in crowd. “When you tweet, Storify, Facebook, Pinterest, your job is to promote Haiti.
“You have to listen to Haitian music, read Haitian books and drink Haitian rum.”
Like St-Victor, Haitian diplomats and government officials were trumpeting their country all week leading up to Saturday’s anniversary, saying it’s open for business and anyone who dares to come will be welcome with open arms. Entrepreneurs need not fear red tape — the road will be cleared and protection assured, both of your investment and your life.
They produced figures showing that the murder rate in Haiti is much lower than its neighbours, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica — two sun destinations far more popular for Canadians. About 80 kidnappers have been arrested in the past year and their networks dismantled, according to Haiti’s prime minister, Laurent Lamothe.
“Every time that a Canadian or Quebecer decides to spend their vacation in Haiti, they contribute to the reconstruction of the country,” said Justin Viard, Haiti’s consul general in Montreal. “The Haitian government has a lot of projects, but not a lot of means.
“We have to focus on what works, rather than what doesn’t.”
Viard’s door is always open to discuss opportunities, he said, and every three months he takes a group of 15 potential investors to his native country. So far, the effort — and offer of 15 tax-free years — is paying off. Five-star hotels have been built, airports upgraded and a police force serving tourists was created. Two 25-year permits were given in December to Montreal-based SIMACT Alliance Copper Gold Inc. (SACG) to mine for gold and copper — the first in almost four decades. A $1.5-billion industrial park has been built north of Port-au-Prince, although critics say it has yet to draw many tenants since its inauguration in October. Quebec engineering firm Gestech International and cement firm Beton Koavek have also taken the bait.
Dan Hachey, president and CEO of exploration company Majescor and SIMACT, who joined the mining company just a few weeks after the earthquake, said he’s seen a “monumental change” in the country, thanks to a pro-business government that has made mining a priority.
Among the crowd at the Je Love Haiti event on Wednesday was 30-year-old Stephanie Villedrouin, Haiti’s tourism minister, who bubbles with energy and enthusiasm — useful traits in accomplishing what many naysayers would consider impossible: attracting visitors to the beleaguered country.
“It’s a huge challenge,” she admitted in an interview. “Haiti had a bad image before the earthquake; imagine what it was after.
“But the goal of the whole government is to put the bad images of Haiti in a drawer and pull open a new drawer that shows Haiti as being a culturally vibrant country.”
Not an easy task after Canada’s international co-operation minister, Julian Fantino, dropped a bomb last week with his sudden announcement that Canada was planning to freeze new aid to Haiti. Despite that, Haitians in town this week put on a brave face, saying yes, it’s time Haiti takes charge of its future and cuts the umbilical cord of aid once and for all. But to do that, they said, we need you to invest.
A smiling Villedrouin announced her major coup that Air Transat will start all-inclusive packages to Haiti at the end of this month, and other diplomats listed the many companies they’re attracting, including Heineken, Nestlé and Marriott.
Canada’s ambassador to Haiti, Henri-Paul Normandin, spent the week doing damage control with Haiti’s media, who wondered what was behind what one paper called “a spanking” from Canada.
“We’re in a period of reflection, discussion, consultation,” Normandin diplomatically told Le Nouvelliste newspaper in Port-au-Prince this week. “When we’ve finished that, we’ll be in a better position, as Haitians and Canadians, to decide which projects will be put in place in the future.”
Requests to interview Normandin were redirected to Ottawa, but no one there responded.
Haiti’s minister of finance, Marie Carmelle Jean-Marie, clearly outraged over Fantino’s announcement, told Haitian media that not one cent of Canadian development aid goes into the public treasury — a fact Normandin confirmed.
The United States, the European Union, the United Nations and former Canadian governor general Michaëlle Jean also jumped on what they saw as a misdirected decision and one that will only hurt Haitians.
Quebec should have been consulted, given the province’s involvement in Haiti, said minister of international relations Jean-François Lisée. In the past 15 years, Quebec has funded 139 projects in the country, with help from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which is overseen by Fantino’s office. A 2011 report said many projects had made a difference in such areas as training human resources and strengthening local organizations. About half of Quebec NGOs are working in Haiti, including Oxfam Quebec and the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI). Lisée said he has asked for a meeting with Fantino.
Others have questioned the timing of Fantino’s comments — days before a painful anniversary and a promotional blitz, and right after a multimillion-dollar mining deal was signed with a Canadian firm. Many, including the editor of Le Nouvelliste, one of Haiti’s most respected newspapers, wondered: Why now? What was the motivation behind Fantino’s “spiteful revision” and “wrath,” Frantz Duval asked in a scathing editorial this week.
“Did Haiti displease Canada to deserve this scathing spanking after the signing of the most important contracts between the Haitian government and a Canadian mining company?” wrote Duval. “Did (Prime Minister Laurent) Lamothe’s government refuse perks to Canadians so that Haiti was singled out?”
Mining executive Hachey said this week he’s not aware of any connection between Fantino’s announcement and his company’s deal, which splits the earnings 50-50 with the Haitian government. He expects they will start extracting gold in three or four years, and copper in six or seven, since it’s a more complicated process.
When asked for comment on whether CIDA’s recent action is connected to the mining contract, the agency replied in a one-line email: “The temporary suspension of mining permits in Haiti is not connected to Canada’s development assistance to Haiti.”
In a follow-up email, when asked to clarify “temporary suspension,” the agency wrote: “CIDA is not involved in this agreement, we suggest you contact the company or our trade colleagues at (the department of foreign affairs and international trade).”
Hachey, reached in Haiti, insisted his company’s permits were “in good standing and not under suspension.”
Whatever the reason, Franklin Midy, a retired sociologist from Université du Québec à Montréal, said given everything that has happened in Haiti since the earthquake — including a cholera outbreak that has claimed the lives of about 8,000 and a 40 per cent unemployment rate — Fantino’s timing seems suspect and reeks of arm twisting.
“Does it really help Haiti to announce we’re freezing aid?” he said. “I find it totally abhorrent.”
Samuel Pierre, a professor at Polytechnique Montréal and president of the Group of Reflection and Action for a New Haiti, also questioned Fantino’s motivation.
“What has he been doing since (he became minister) in July?” he asked. “Do you need six months to decide that you’re going to think things over?”
Motivations aside, many, including Michaëlle Jean, now UNESCO’s special envoy for Haiti, agree that aid to the country should be re-evaluated. But not because, as Fantino observed on a recent visit, three years after the earthquake, there’s still garbage everywhere in the streets. Why, Fantino said insensitively, don’t Haitians get to work and clean it up?
“If we are thinking of refocusing how we accompany Haiti, how about addressing this waste management issue?” Jean said in a recent interview. “Let’s find a Haitian approach and work on that issue together instead of giving this idea that they’re all lazy.
“Let’s create jobs and solve the sanitation problem.”
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Haiti has long been known as the Republic of NGOs — no one even knows exactly how many are there. Since the earthquake, planeloads of well-meaning people have headed to the Caribbean country, but there has been little co-ordination among them, and worse, little consultation with the Haitian people or grassroots organizations.
Even meetings held right after the disaster excluded Haitians because they were held in English and, without transportation, were impossible to get to.
While investment like the kind the government is wooing is good, land and education reform have to happen at the same time, as well as building the government’s capacity to provide basic services, like electricity, sanitation and health, said Brian Concannon, of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
Instead, NGOs become the de facto government by creating a demand for their own services, he said.
“Every foreign working for NGOs should wake up every day and say, ‘How am I going to make myself obsolete? How am I going to leave something behind that’s so sustainable, they’re not going to need me?’ ”
The billion dollars Canada has spent on aid in Haiti since 2006 has gone mostly to Canadian NGOs and companies. Less than one per cent of aid goes to Haitian NGOs and none goes to the Haitian government, according to Normandin, the Canadian ambassador to Haiti.
“This can’t go on and on,” Jean said.
She points to Rwanda as an example of how NGOs can work hand in hand with government and civil society to rebuild together. Rwanda welcomed NGOs after the 1994 genocide, but they have to work within the government’s plan and strategies, which avoids the overlapping and ineffective outcomes so often seen in Haiti. It also means Rwandans are included in the development process.
Sure, the challenges in Haiti are enormous and things obviously won’t turn around overnight, those working in the country say. But things have begun to move: the national palace, its crumbled corpse a sad reminder of this date in 2010, has finally been cleared away, ministry buildings are starting to go up and many grassroots groups are doing imaginative work in human rights and the law.
Haitian women’s groups, for example, are being credited with the courts delivering 13 rape convictions last summer; the justice system has historically not prosecuted the crime well, if at all.
Women formed court observation teams, lobbied the government and participated in the legal process, according to the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a human-rights law firm based in Port-au-Prince.
“This encouraged Haitian officials from police officers to judges to step up and prosecute rape better than ever before,” said Haitian lawyer Mario Joseph. “Poor female victims of rape — the most marginalized in the hemisphere — enforcing their rights with a little help within Haiti’s troubled justice system is what ‘building back better’ looks like.”
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One of the biggest issues — and the one that has received the least money — is housing. According to the International Organization of Migration, 347,284 Haitians are still living in makeshift shelters, although all the public spaces once crammed with tents have been emptied.
“The problem of camps sitting where journalists will see them has been solved; the problem of earthquake survivors with no homes has not,” said Concannon.
According to a New York Times article published last month, at least $7.5 billion has been disbursed since the earthquake but more than half the money was spent on emergency relief — tents, water, food — that creates no lasting change. Of the rest, the Times reported, much went to HIV prevention, highway building, the industrial park in the north and a teaching hospital in the central plateau. In other words, very little was spent on reconstruction. Only $215 million was spent on housing.
Seventy per cent of the national budget of $1.2 billion comes from foreign aid. The biggest source of foreign currency — $2 billion — comes from the diaspora. What the government wants — and needs — now is more investment that will create jobs and a tax base so services can be provided. NGOs can help the equation by working with government and civil society to strengthen the state’s ability to serve the people.
After the earthquake, not one institution delivered completely on its promises, Concannon pointed out. “So it’s ironic that a lot of the international actors are saying the aid we promised but didn’t give isn’t working so we’re not going to give any more,” he said.
In his recently released book Killing with Kindness, author Mark Schuller, a professor of African-American studies in the U.S., said Haiti’s earthquake highlights that there has to be a human rights-based approach to development, rather than one based on national interest.
“The earthquake is exposing the weaknesses in the system of international aid,” he wrote. “Since the quake, the general public and the mainstream media are thinking and talking about NGOs in a more realistic, critical light.”
Many, including Concannon, believe Haitians’ access to the Internet via cellphones and computers is going to change people’s expectations and their ability to interact with the world. Like in many parts of the world, such as Egypt, it becomes a way of mobilizing the masses.
“Once that cat is out of the bag, it’s going to be much more difficult to keep people bored and miserable,” he said.
An example of business investment empowering Haitians is Digicel, the country’s telecommunications provider, which has enabled even the poorest Haitian to own a cellphone. Its founder, Irish billionaire entrepreneur Denis O’Brien, launched Digicel in Jamaica in 2001, then entered the Haitian market in 2006.
At the World Economic Forum last year in Davos, he gushed about Haiti, saying it’s about to explode over the next few years. At the time, however, the International Monetary Fund forecast the country’s gross domestic product would grow by 7.8 per cent. In fact, it’s only growing by 2.5 per cent.
“We operate in 30 countries, but we are so enthusiastic about Haiti, we’re telling others to come,” O’Brien said. “As a place to do business, it’s a solid place to be.”
Haiti’s new president, a former musician with no political experience, told the same forum that the old Haiti, with its images of poverty and devastation, is over. With words that could pass as lyrics to a rap song, Michel Martelly told the suits gathered in Switzerland: “This new leadership is about no more aid, but trade; no more handouts, but hands up.”
Martelly, who was elected in May 2011 but had a rocky first seven months, until he found a prime minister parliament would accept, boasts about providing free schooling for 903,000 children, building 4,000 homes, appointing a Supreme Court judge for the first time in seven years and attracting big-name investors.
At the end of last year, an anti-corruption hotline was set up by the Office of the Inspector General with USAID to report fraudulent practices within USAID-funded projects.
Such initiatives are helpful to assuage Haiti’s long-standing reputation for being corrupt to the core, but allowing former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier off scot-free after he stole hundreds of millions of dollars and was responsible for hundreds of people being tortured makes such moves moot, according to Concannon. Duvalier, who was liked by Western governments when he ruled from 1971 until he was driven out in a popular uprising in 1986, returned to Haiti from exile in France in 2011. But there has been no pressure from the international community, including Canada, that he be prosecuted.
“That’s a precedent that corruption on a large scale is in fact tolerated by Haitian, American and Canadian governments,” Concannon said.
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No one wants to see Haiti succeed more than Haitians themselves, but they have to be involved in the choice, the planning and carrying out of projects, lawyer Joseph said.
“When international development efforts in Haiti fail, it’s frustrating for the world, but deadly for the poor of my country.”
Je Love Haiti organizer St-Victor, who was born in Lac St-Jean, said the earthquake ironically spurred a certain pride in the diaspora and forced them to examine their role in the reconstruction. For her part, St-Victor is practising what she preaches. Her Montreal PR firm will open an office in Cap-Haïtien, in northern Haiti, next month, offering business communication services. She encourages all members of the diaspora from her generation, who have the education and finances to make a difference, to step up too.