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Haiti and Its Diaspora

By Bernier Lauredan, M.D., and Linda Cesar with contribution of Stuart Leiderman

 A common adage in Haiti is When the diaspora sneezes, Haiti gets the cold.” The following seeks to shed some light.

Sun-soaked beaches, palm trees swaying in the Caribbean breeze, and a laid‑back lifestyle once typified Haiti. Today, this nation once known as “Perle des Antilles offers a very bleak and delicate reality.  With an estimated  population of upwards 11 million (2019), meager GDP of US$9.6 billion (2019), meager per capita of US$759 (2019), and underdevelopment-associated challenges — upward 70% unemployment rate;  environmental, health and sanitation challenges;  famine looming in the horizon;  a weak judicial system and a fragile political climate;  persistent emigration and a growing border debacle with no clear policy solutions in sight — one might say that Haiti is a fragile state on the brink of collapse.  As shown below, Haiti’s per capita, the lowest in Latin America and the Caribbean, has been declining since 2010. Haiti’s current state is the result of several factors that have accumulated and or worsened over the years.

According to Miami Herald, from 1990 to 2015, Haiti has been affected by 1 major earthquake, 16 hurricanes, 25 severe floods and 7 seasonal droughts that resulted in over 350,000 persons’ death, countless agricultural loss, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, and billions of dollars in infrastructural damages.

For a long time, Haiti has been classified amongst the “most corrupt” States around the world. “The biggest obstacle to reconstruction and development in Haiti is corruption” hails a 2015 Reuters’ report[1].  This problem is evidenced in various reports from different sources, over the years.  Corruption is compounded by a weak judicial system with limited capacity to enforce the rule of law at all levels.  Consequently, public policies are not implemented properly, thus leading to chronic mismanagement of resources and people. Although challenged by difficulties – denationalization, maiming and deportation in Dominican Republic; maiming in Brazil; deportation in Bahamas, and Turk and Caicos — in countries of adoption,  the diaspora has been of considerable assistance to Haiti.

Over the years, Haiti has benefited from international cooperation that led to the development of projects that seek to strengthen Haiti’s socio-economic, environmental and political fabric. The post-earthquake international aid efforts (estimated US$13.5 Billion) turned into a debacle that has fueled the notion that International Aid, implemented with no coordination, monitoring and evaluation only provides short-term bandage solutions that do not truly contribute to Haiti’s sustainable development.  The result is a state with an uncertain future.   Critics from Haiti’s civil society and Diaspora argue that International aid should be structured within Haiti’s overall development plans and objectives and coordinated with and implemented by competent Haitians so as the donors and implementing partners are held accountable for results. In “Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs,” Mark Schuller and Paul Farmer shed more light on the lack of Effective Coordination of Donor Programs in Haiti.  Noteworthy is the government of Haiti has recently undertaken many initiatives that have provided a glimpse at development.  It is important to build upon this model and strengthen development-oriented actions towards the future.

A common adage in Haiti is When the diaspora sneezes, Haiti gets the cold.” The explanation is the Haitian Diaspora is widely recognized as the survival backbone of  families within the country for well over two (2) decades.  According to the World Bank, this diaspora contributes over 3 billion dollars in Haiti’s economy or over 1/3 of its GDP.   Unaccounted for, however, is cash money informally brought or sent home for funeral or local tourism and the recent government imposed US$1.50 per transfer and US$0.50 per telephone calls.   Unaccounted for is also the ambassador’s role of the diaspora, especially the first generation, representing Haiti’s culture, history, and rights and interest on the international scene.  Also attractive to Haiti are the diaspora’s economic and social assets — saving bonds, pension, mortgage equity, retirement, and contacts — for leverage to create businesses and or bring significant Industries to Haiti. Unfortunately, the more “attached” older first generation is retiring on fixed income, with the potential for decreased remittances.  The “unattached” diaspora youth, who may be interested in investment, but is less likely to be involved in remittances.

It ensures that Haiti is heavily dependent on its diaspora, dependence highlighted in the affectionate adage — “When the diaspora sneezes, Haiti gets a cold.”  However, the Diaspora has been longing for a role that differs from the limited presence it is allowed in Haiti’s public affairs. The diaspora is excluded in the affairs of Haiti — taxation without representation. This exclusion negatively impacts the diaspora — exercise of civil rights, ownership of properties, investments.  Noteworthy is Haiti has attempted  to resolve the issue.  In 1994, the “Ministère des Haïtiens Vivant à l’Etranger” was established to address the integration of Haitians living abroad in the country’s affairs. The latest Constitutional Amendments provide for limited roles for Haitians who are or who used to live abroad in Haiti’s public administration. However, the effectiveness of the above is fluid — the diaspora is still excluded from occupying certain important positions in Haiti’s government.

Today, Diaspora expertise and investment are aggressively pursued by scores of countries worldwide.  Prominent among them are 1) Israel whose diaspora invest over 60 billion dollars in “Israreli Bond” for the  development of Israel, in addition to remittances, expertise, and the most powerful lobbying force on behalf of Israel worldwide;  2) India whose diaspora invest over 30 billion dollars in in India Bond, in addition to remittances, expertise, and export; 3) our next door neighbor, Santo Domingo, whose diaspora, including Lionel Fernandez, came back home from Bronx, NY, to provide expertise for its economic development Revolution; and 4) post-genocide Rwanda whose diaspora returned in mass at Paul Kagame urging to transform the country into a coveted model for underdeveloped countries, such as Haiti.

Inspired by the successful experience of other countries, many — Haiti Partners,  Experts on Haiti Affairs, and noted Haitian Economists and constitutional law professors — have underscored the Haitian Diaspora potential  and urged its  inclusion in Haiti’s  reconstruction and economic development.

Internationally, the most noted are of  Dr. Robert Maguire, a renowned specialist on Haiti’s Affairs, who, in his February 2010 post-earthquakes testimony to the US Senate, urged the Subcommittee on Foreign Assistance to include the able and willing diaspora in the Reconstruction and daunting development of Haiti: 

”Haiti’s Diaspora offers bountiful evidence of what can be achieved  when opportunities are twined with talents, he said.

 And Johanna Mendelson Forman, Hardin Lang and Ashley Chandler of Center for Strategic and International Studies concurred:

.The opportunities for growth are tangible, and the diaspora is uniquely positioned to help Haiti realize its full economic potential,”  they said.

And nationally, in a May 7, 2015 lecture around the mutations of the aitian economy Jean-Marie Boisson, a renowned Haitian Economist, concluded:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

”Help from families (who migrated to the United States,) through money transfers,” has a much greater effect on the Economy than external Support… Money transfers, which Act directly on the purchasing power of the people and provide them with a minimum of economic freedom, in terms of the daily unemployment situation in Haiti…” he said.   

“Migration (is) currently the name of the game of the Haitian economy;” he added. 

The foregoing offers a glimpse to the benefits offered by the Haitian Diaspora’s Integration to Haiti.

Haiti’s natural and fratricidal-induced underdevelopment forces Haitians to flee the country altogether. The status quo brought  Pope John Paul II to Haiti to diplomatically declare: Quelque chose doit changer ici — something has to change here (in Haiti)“ while kissing its soil.  So has Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Wangari Maathai,  who was brought to Haiti to replicate her Green Belt movement. She, sadly, left and declared upon her departure: “Haiti was somehow intractable”.

The Pope’s prayer was partly answered with the end of the Duvalier’s dictatorship in Haiti. But both the Pope and  Dr. Maathai’s concerns — over   200 years of  status quo — remain.  It ensures that although every prayer has an end — Amen — but the end has yet to come to Haiti.  As a result of the continuance, this fragile state is on the brink of collapse.  In advance, though, this uneducated peasant said goodbye — “Payi sa (Haiti) pa offri anyen, chili tet dwat” — this country (Haiti) does not offer anything, straight to chile” he said in crele on his way to Chile on a mule. Unfortunately, challenges — migration, integration, assimilation, discrimination,  relative poverty — are also ready to welcome him in chile. 

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” said Albert Einstein. This prompts the Haitian diaspora to conclude that a Kennedy-style approach —  “Ask NOT what your country can do for YOU, ask what YOU can do for your country” — needs to be invoked and implemented in Haiti.  This also prompts various international institutions — World Bank, IDB — to concur.  And so do international and national experts on “Haiti  Affairs” — Dr. Maguire told the US. Congress: “Haiti’s Diaspora offers bountiful evidence of what can be achieved when opportunities are twined with talents”;  Johanna Mendelson Forman, Hardin Lang and Ashley Chandler of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said: The opportunities for growth are tangible, and the diaspora is uniquely positioned to help Haiti realize its full economic potential”;  and renowned Haitian Economist Jean-Marie Boisson said: ”This country is an economy of migrants (…) Migration (is) currently the name of the game of the Haitian economy”. 

Their conclusion is supported by the fact that an estimated 4.5 million Haitians live outside of Haiti – diaspora.  According to the World Bank, 83% of Haiti’s expertise is among them.  Amid its own foregoing challenges in adopted countries, this diaspora contributes over US$3 billion (1/3 of Haiti’s GDP) in remittances.  These remittances far exceed Haiti’s international Aid, coined “fatal Assistance”.  Unfortunately, these remittances are not geared toward development and they are slowly drying out as the second and third generation of Haitians are not as attached to Haiti as their parents.  However, they may be interested in investment, if integrity finds its way back in Haiti.  Sadly though, with fewer remittances, Haiti’s challenges are expected to exponentially grow – a bomb ready to explode. 

This reality prompts experts on Haiti and diaspora affairs to urge Haiti to adopt a development-oriented plan, seasoned with diaspora capacity — “brain regain” — for the Motherland[5] sake.  In support thereof, they cited Rwanda’s Economic Revolution/ Evolution, and even the Dominican Republic’s, where such a change, spearheaded by former diasporas, yields extraordinary results. They, also, strongly support the substitution of assistance to investment. And Haiti Bond is cited as an example.  However, Haiti has yet to welcome such a change, as well as addressing the deterrents  –  civic engagement, Justice and security, loss of investment and properties, reintegration, support, and cooperation – to the safe return of its diaspora. 

Today, there has been no effective strategy or policy in place that seeks to define and implement a structure that promotes and engages the Haitian Diaspora as a productive partner in the resolution of these and other issues in countries of adoption. The Haitian Diaspora Federation is undertaking this task.  And we are seeking your support.

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