Written by Lesly Kernisant, M.D.
While Haiti is still not the preferred destination for a vacation seeker wanting to bask in the Caribbean sunshine, there is now a new expression coined by missionaries flying to Haiti multiple times for regularly scheduled “Charity ” visits. This new concept is now called “Voluntourism” referring to the magnetic appeal of the country to those volunteers who, for the first time, visited the country on a routine charitable mission and made it a regular pilgrimage thereafter.
On the average, a flight to Haiti is now always carrying a substantial number of well-meaning missionaries from church and other non-governmental organizations. Of course, any and every visitor to a country contributes to its economic vitality. Although many of us criticize the “open-door” policy allowing a number of NGOs to operate freely and independently anywhere in the country, it is generally accepted that the depth of our poverty is such that any “constraint” to charitable donations can be counterproductive to our on-going effort to improve the living conditions of the people. Therefore, the NGO phenomenon should be viewed not entirely as a bad thing for the country, but as a means to an end. In due course, as the pillars of development are well anchored, appropriate regulations aligning their activities with the national priorities in order to counterbalance their overall impact on our economic growth will have to be addressed once and for all.
For years, the Haitian-American Diaspora has taken a lot of credit for sustaining the livelihood of their family members by their regular transfer of money for basic necessities of life. By the most recent calculations, 2.6 million Haitians residing abroad are responsible for close to $2 billions in remittances yearly. In fact, this source of revenue makes a good part of the country’s GDP. Without it, life would have been terribly unbearable for many of our relatives left behind. Paradoxically, the NGOs and the Diaspora’s claim of being the lifeline of the country have had the unintended effect of a moribund country hanging in a permanent state of “stunted developmental growth”. The NGOs used “Charity” as an instrument that progressively kills individual initiative and instills in most remote communities a culture of blind dependency and entitlement. Additionally, when free food items, medications and other clothing articles are unregulated on the local market, there is very little competitive edge for our local merchants to sell their wares. Hence, the resulting state of our dismally poor and diminishing export profile as an old coffee, sugar, rice, cocoa, mango and aluminum producer.
The Diaspora contribution, on the other hand, is helpful in maintaining the daily consumption of goods to their close relatives, but does little in advancing the country toward jobs creation and self-sufficiency. A good example is a mother from Miami sending her son $250 as a regular monthly allowance. To her surprise, he cashed the money and gave an additional $150 of his own earnings from his job in Haiti to a friend returning to Miami to buy him a $400 flat-screen TV. The winning party in this deal is the Samsung TV corporation and the Miami sales tax collectors, a true reversal of fortune from the poorest country to the richest. Again, there are many examples of these “remittance reversals” that contribute nothing to the Haitian economy.
Other than these external economic forces that are totally ineffectual in moving us forward on the path of development, there is the massive amount of overseas banking transactions involving large sums of money earned in Haiti and deposited in foreign banks. It is estimated that most of the profits generated by businesses on Haitian soil either by the Diaspora or those living in Haiti are stashed away not in local banks, but in Miami, New York and Switzerland. Nothing wrong with that, but we have to be serious about development when the few of us with the control of the nation’s financial purse try to hide away its contents, only to be used for personal gains and not for the collective good.
I truly believe that Haiti is now open for business. The past excuses of political instability, insecurity, lack of leadership, lack of judicial recourse, while not quite settled yet, are being addressed as immediate priorities. Infrastructure projects, long being debated, are now being placed on an implementation schedule. A good number of our homeless, street dwellers are beginning to leave the flimsy tents to more habitable structures. The major roadways to the North, South, East and West of the country are now crisscrossing the entire countryside. Permanent schools and hospitals are being built across the country. The country’s past tortured image is being dusted with a few sprinkles of promising environmental safeguards. The Ministry of Tourism has, in a short time, sounded very loudly the trumpets for change announcing the opening and construction of 4 main hotel chains in Haiti in less than a year: Best Western, Occidental, Marriott and Choices hotel International. Our ports of entry, including the Port-au-Prince airport, Cap Haitien airport and the Jacmel airport, will all be fully operational within a year. Definitely, these are flashing signs that serious “business” is in the air.
For the past 50 years, our political observers and critics have justifiably developed a sort of a deja vu reflex that fuels deep mistrust to new government team and their promises to country building. The Preval government, despite warranted criticisms for its post-quake inaction, deserves credit for building the strong development framework upon which the new, young, female-dominated leadership team headed by the Martelly-Lamothe duo are quietly transforming Haiti from the poorest to the most improved country in the Caribbean region. For that, they deserve our help and encouragement. Having your doubt about a regime is no excuse to stay away in a perpetual protest of a wrong choice. All I am asking of the skeptics is to be objective in your assessment and constructive in your criticisms. The country is indeed moving in the right direction. Let’s all join hands, no matter what your political persuasion or past affiliation, to take the country from bad to great.
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