Business Can Help Haiti

Last October, I attended a historic and successful conference in Port-au-Prince organized by the Inter-American Development Bank highlighting investment opportunities in Haiti. When I first visited Haiti 35 years ago, I wouldn't have imagined that this kind of event would be held in Port-au-Prince, let alone that more than 200 investors and business leaders from around the world would attend—including representation from all over Latin America. Nearly everyone who came was convinced of the opportunity and promise in Haiti for profitable businesses that serve both local and export markets. Many left with new commitments to increase their capacity in Haiti.

Much of this success is a testament to the progress the Haitian government had made toward implementing its comprehensive plan for economic development, even in the face of devastating hurricanes and storms. Since June 2009, I had been doing what I could to help as the U.N.'s Special Envoy for Haiti and through the efforts of my Clinton Global Initiative. And for the first time, I believed the country had its greatest chance to overcome 200 years of oppression, neglect, and poverty.

Even in the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake, I still believe that. The outpouring of help from the international community has enabled aid agencies to deliver emergency supplies to hundreds of thousands of displaced or injured people. Every donation to fund access to water, shelter, food, and medical supplies saved countless lives. Yet as relief work goes on, many leaders of the business community are looking forward, and asking: "What's next? How can we be partners in Haiti's future?"

Today, perhaps counterintuitively, opportunities in Haiti abound. Amid the destruction, the Haitian leadership rightfully views this as an opportunity to reimagine their country and "build back better" in ways that create jobs, improve education and health care, and enhance environmental sustainability. Nearly every sector of the economy needs investment and offers opportunity, but I'd like to highlight a few specific sectors of particular importance:

Agribusiness: Agriculture and agribusiness weren't severely damaged by the quake. Haiti has tremendous potential to develop and expand here, especially in fresh fruits, vegetables, and coffee—while increasing farmers' pay through high-value exports. Businesses looking to get involved could import and market Haitian coffee or mangoes, or invest in local processing that buys from smallholder farmers.

Rural Infrastructure: Expanding roads and cellular coverage into rural areas will connect farmers to new markets and information while enhancing access to health care. Warehouses and grain storage facilities with receipts systems for farmers have proven to increase incomes. Businesses with know-how in these areas can support projects that extend the power grid and improve functions such as banking and retail transactions.

Renewable Energy: Haiti has the potential to become one of the leading solar countries in the world. As well as lighting off-grid streets and homes (and powering flashlights and radios), solar energy can strengthen other sectors. Solar-powered drip irrigation systems can lift crop yields—even enable a second growing season in some places. Solar energy now powers a fish farming operation that could easily and profitably be three to five times as large.

Reforestation: Large-scale tree-planting projects partnered with small-scale community-based projects would not only protect Haiti's environment, they would create jobs in the fruit and lumber sectors. Businesses can buy carbon credits from community-based tree-planting initiatives in Haiti and advance the government's watershed management and reforestation programs.

Apparel and Textiles: In just the past few months this sector has shown significant signs of progress. Most of the primary facilities survived the earthquake, and many are operational again. Under the U.S. HOPE II Act of 2008, $428 million in goods have been exported to the U.S. duty-free. Brazil is considering a similar relationship. Companies in this sector can invest in apparel and textile factories that integrate everything from weaving and dyeing through packaging.

Call Centers: Haiti could also be an ideal location for offshore call centers, which could serve both English- and French-speaking markets and employ the many Haitians who have recently become amputees or suffered other physical disabilities.

Some businesses and investors are exploring the creation of a pooled investment fund. I encourage these efforts. Years from now, our response will be judged by how many jobs we help create, how many businesses are started or expanded, the vitality of the middle class, and whether investors are able to earn a profit by doing the right thing. I invite you to be a part of this.

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