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Building The Bridge To A Better Haiti

By Lesly Kernisant, M.D

When compared to its next door neighbor, Haiti is still shockingly behind in all aspects of development. Its infrastructure is grossly inadequate, all the major institutions in shambles and the social fabric is disintegrating at an alarming rate.  Overpopulation and high unemployment have formed a lethal mixture leading to all kind of problems. With every change of government since the Duvalier era, the hope and the dream of a new and improved Haiti have played into the Haitian expatriates' psyche to create the excitement of a "coming back  home" frenzy.  In the Haitian-American communities, many entrepreneurial organizers are disclosing their long term developmental plans and making projections for a brighter future for their beloved country.

Almost always, this spirited air of optimism is quickly filled with the smoggy cloud of disappointment.  The Diaspora is constantly searching for a leader to help them realize their much-coveted dream of a stable and prosperous homeland. The prospect of a new, different style of leadership created by the conscience of the majority has always remained a glimmering  political goal of the Haitian electorate during the past four presidential elections, but so far, it has proven to be a wish as elusive as the legendary promise of a Santa Claus.

 

Until recently, the long-awaited piece of legislation about dual citizenship has essentially gotten the blessing of the legislative branch, but written in such a cryptic language, it really changes very little and manages to preserve the sanctity of the office of the Haitian presidency by keeping it out of reach of those who insist on maintaining dual citizenship.  And the constant duel that is on-going between the executive and the legislative has been a paralyzing factor delaying indefinitely the much heralded, post-quake reconstruction. The country continues to operate on an auto-pilot mode allowing the passive proliferation of a large and unregulated NGO force that is both good and bad for a country where desperation and powerlessness make it vulnerable to any unscrupulous operation. Without question, the philanthropic arm of these NGOs has lifted the country from the precipice of doom to a much manageable state of recovery, but the open-ended aspect of their mission in Haiti does have the unintended effect of instituting a culture of mendicity largely perpetuated by the deep and powerful purse of the international community. With a Haitian national budget built substantially on donations, no wonder Canada finds it convenient to tag charitable aid to unrestricted exploitation of the country's mines.  A painful reminder that "he who gives always rules".  This can certainly be applied to all friendly countries that often use generosity as an entry key to a weaker country's back door giving them unimpeded access to its often buried treasures or other concealed natural resources. It is well known on the international stage as the "Aid trap" phenomenon.

 

As we start a new year, we can now reflect back on the road traveled so far where a number of missteps have led us to a series of costly blunders. We can then use our experience of these past failures to build a much stronger foundation to turn our dream of a better Haiti into a brand new reality.

 

On the other side of the ocean, the Diaspora still contributes heavily to the Haitian economy. However, the notion that Haiti relies solely on the Diaspora for a sustained development is a bit pretentious and can potentially hamper collaboration by fanning the flame of polarization between the large body of expatriates, judged less patriotic for having left the country for a better future and the Haitian nationals for having the courage to stay and help heal the wounds of their battered country. Conversely, the idea that somehow there is a concerted effort on the part of the Haitian nationals to keep the members of the Diaspora at bay is being overblown by isolated acts of xenophobic reaction on the part of a few insecure, homegrown professionals whose lack of experience on the international scene is bound to be accentuated once measured against the certified expertise of his/her foreign-trained counterpart.

 

Let's now put our differences aside and make an assessment of our strengths and weaknesses.  Unfortunately, unlike our next-door neighbor whose phenomenal development run over the past 25 years was triggered by only a few rich and famous members of its Diaspora, Haiti has instead a Diaspora that can only achieve this level of financial might by collectively rallying its scattered talents that represent cumulatively a much stronger and richer Diaspora. We have very few independently wealthy Haitians in the Diaspora, but we need to consolidate our individual resources if we are to produce the same degree of developmental impact. Presently, our neighboring country’s GDP is approximately $47 billion as compared to a poultry $7 billion for Haiti. Their government tax and other revenues on an annual basis amounts to $7 billion as compared to $ 1 billion in Haiti.

What to do as proud Haitians?

 

First and foremost, we need to pursue a vision for change from the culture of poverty to self-sufficiency. NGOs should not be viewed as the means to an end. They were intended to be a band-aid approach to help with the basic emergency needs of a people afflicted by man-made and natural disasters. Endless prolongation of a period of aid automatically kills our ability to innovate. Poverty therefore becomes an accepted mode of life. Over the years, we had no choice, but we now need to stop being overly dependent on annual allowances from the international community. This form of charitable funding comes with a heavy price tag that slowly erodes our autonomy as a nation. There are stiff restrictions on when, what and why to use these donated funds. In many instances, the donor nation retained the beneficiary rights of specific choice for the purchased goods and services as dictated by the terms of these donations. Hence, the principle of imposed consumerism by way of philanthropy is well embedded in most aid package.

 

Second, take a break from politics. We tend to rely too much on government to provide us with the means to facilitate comfort for our daily life as though it is a god-given right. We built our beautiful private residences up in the hills of Petion-Ville and expect the roadway and its maintenance to be the sole responsibilities of the State. We send our sons and daughters to State-sponsored professional schools (Medicine, Dentistry, Agriculture and Law) without ever contributing a penny to those schools. And yet, in the US, we all pay for our state-sponsored education and comply with the payment of hefty property tax for the simple joy of living in a secure, clean, and easily accessible neighborhoods. If we play by the same rule in Haiti, we undoubtedly will help accelerate the pace of progress in a country we all would like to finally take off. With that in mind, each of us has the civic duty to lend a hand to our beloved Haiti, so the stigma of being the "poorest country in the western hemisphere" will not continue to impede our ability to make forward progress in this highly competitive Caribbean tourist market. There are too many areas of opportunities, too many needs that remained unfulfilled, too many initiatives that can be developed for us to sit on the sidelines waiting for things to be perfect before we truly engage ourselves. We cannot wait for Haiti to suddenly become a transformed paradise before feeling safe to invest our money in many fields of development. This is clearly an ideal dream that is so far removed from the realm of rationality.

 

What do we need now?

 

What is possible is for all of us is to draw an optimistic roadmap and collectively transform Haiti, using its rich human and natural resources, from bankruptcy to the greatest. This is not an impossible dream, this is definitely a reachable goal.  Let's not be discouraged by the naysayers who only see the bad aspects of the country, let's celebrate the small steps of remarkable accomplishments over the last several years. If the usually negative international press has noted the slow, but visible progress from bad to better in a country badly damaged by a string of natural disasters, including the worst earthquake in the Caribbean, the lethal wrath of a Cholera epidemics and the chaotic aftermath of a contentious election, it’s time for us to stop the path of self-destruction. Never mind what political ideology you espouse, let’s move forward and bring progressive ideas on the table as long as we have a stable government willing to work with us.

 

What can the country do for us?

 

In exchange, the country also needs to be more accommodating to those private investors from abroad by instituting a more relaxed policy on financing. Loan subsidy, tax abatement and other inducements for job creation should be made available to those who are willing to switch their money from Wall Street of New York to the main streets of their homeland. The government may not be able to provide capital, but can easily help in providing access roads, electricity, water sources, etc...

 

We may still be on the course toward regaining our lost glory as a country. Politics aside, let’s follow the examples of most other countries that incorporate their Diaspora into their national agenda. In my view, our Haitian expatriates are eager to cross the bridge toward the homeland. They have been amassing a cargo loaded with tools, heavy equipments and great ideas to help rebuild the land which, despite the passage of time, still magnetically pulls them inside to start the much needed reconstruction work. The sad part is that they have been waiting a long time for this reconnection and despite the repeated failed promises, the false starts, the missed opportunities, they never stop hoping for an eventual return to the promised land where their umbilical roots are still deeply buried.

 

As time passes, there is the reality of generational shift that may harbor a totally different vision for the future of Haiti. Our sons and grandsons, if not soon immersed in the cultural mix of the Haitian society, may cut all ties and therefore reject all patriotic values that their parents so passionately embraced toward their country of birth, Haiti. As far as the future Haitian-American generation is concerned, if the prevailing xenophobic attitude on the part of our politicians continues beyond the next few years, Haiti would become just another country with a mere ancestral tie with no significant sentimental value to them. That could be a major loss of opportunity for a country with a Diaspora that is now considered the most powerful group of Caribbean expatriates in North America. That would be a tragic end for a country that is now poised to be the next example of Israel, a small country, but a mighty nation propelled by the Jewish Diaspora using its strong political clout to influence the world policy in their favor. I have no doubt the Haitian Diaspora, given the same opportunity, will be Haiti’s best chance for real comeback as the shining star of the Caribbean nations.

 

February 12, 2013

 

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