Irish business leaders play key role in Haiti’s recovery
Skills and expertise of Irish figures crucial in reconstructing devastated nation
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti resulted in more than 250,000 deaths in the rubble of the poorly constructed buildings of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Irish business leaders make a very significant positive impact on communities in Haiti, a country of extraordinary contradictions. Shockingly impoverished communities live in stunning naturally beautiful countryside. Negligible national economic progress is evident yet the city streets are bustling with exceptionally entrepreneurial and positive people.
The lush green countryside produces less than half of the country’s food needs and just 20 per cent of the requirement of rice, its stable crop.
A visit to Haiti is always an emotional rollercoaster ride of hope and despair. Fifty-nine per cent of the population survive on less than $2 a day. Only 50 per cent of children attend school and most of these do not progress beyond the age of 11. The majority of teachers lack basic training, some are illiterate. Per capita GDP is just $1,800, about 3 per cent of Ireland’s.
Such pervasive and extreme poverty is a result of decades of ineffective political leadership combined with international neglect and abuse. Heavy national debt and damaging international trade agreements have transformed this once prosperous country into the poorest in the western hemisphere, woefully unprepared for natural disasters such as its four hurricanes in 2008 and the devastating earthquake in 2010 that resulted in over 250,000 deaths among the rubble of the poorly constructed buildings of the capital city of Port-au-Prince.
Leslie and Carmel Buckley’s highly successful charity Haven has recently absorbed the management of projects initiated by the Soul of Haiti Foundation. Concern Worldwide is involved in housing and training, rehousing more than 8,000 families in the past few years. Denis O’Brien’s Digicel business is Haiti’s largest ever foreign direct investment project, and his Digicel Foundation has supported more than 50,000 children in its 200 rebuilt schools. Mayo woman Gina Heraty’s lifetime commitment to her orphanage is humbling, offering a home to 400 children. The Irish in Haiti are making a real and meaningful impact.
I first visited Haiti as part of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year retreat in 2007 that led to the establishment of the Soul of Haiti Foundation. Since then I have visited dozens of times, most recently two weeks ago.
Amid the chaotic traffic, the desperate poverty and violence, almost everyone seems to be an entrepreneur: smallholder farmers, street traders, artists and tailors. And despite the apparently hopelessness, we see progress on every visit.
A 50-acre model farm at Christine Valley in the remote southern region was initiated and funded by Soul of Haiti co-founder Neil O’Leary of Ion Equity, with technical support from Country Crest. It now provides 25 local jobs, has increased corn yields fivefold and acts as a training ground for farming best practice for over 80 local farmers.
Now under the control of Haven, the farm has attracted significant financial support from both the Kellogg and Digicel Foundations, and will soon achieve commercial sustainability.
Vladimir Grandoit, a former gang leader in the St Martin slum in Port-au-Prince, operates a bakery established with equipment supplied and installed in 2012 by Soul of Haiti Foundation’s patrons H&K and the Company of Food. He is now seeking to transfer his business into a larger production unit a short distance away from the ongoing security instability of St Martin.
On Ile a Vache, a small Haitian island, prospective female entrepreneurs are being trained on a project run by Haven. We met young mothers who were setting up micro-businesses producing snack-foods; buying bulk household cleaners for repacking into affordable smaller packs; and trading in locally grown horticulture.
Not all is perfect, however. The frequent torrential rain causes instant street flooding as drains and canals are blocked by garbage; an example of Haiti’s weak infrastructure restricting rather than facilitating progress.
Serious security problems persist; our journey was disrupted by street blockades forcing diversions.
These memories contrast with wonderful sights on Ile a Vache of a pure white-sand beach (listed by CNN recently as one of the world’s best), with the sights of immaculately dressed uniformed school children walking from roadside huts along those chaotic streets of Port-au-Prince, and with the extraordinary buzz of the street traders.
The options for businesses to engage in making a positive impact on a developing country like Haiti are numerous. Making financial donations is the simplest, a more active engagement may include transferring some skills and expertise.
Haiti’s future remains uncertain. The country is like one of its badly built houses; if it is to survive future shocks, it needs a deeper foundation of political and business leadership that will provide sustainable livelihoods and dependable income.
Michael Carey is managing director of East Coast Bakehouse, a co-founder/director of the Soul of Haiti Foundation and a speaker at the Haiti Action Network, part of the Clinton Global Initiative today in New York. @careyonfood