Spotlight: U.S. Foreign Assistance and Haiti

October 25, 2012 By Ashley E. (Chandler) Chang

Even before the devastating January 2010 earthquake killed hundreds of thousands people and leveled much of the capitol city Port-au-Prince, Haiti was a country defined by poverty, disease, violence, political instability, as well as narco- and human-trafficking. The earthquake was one of the worst natural disasters in modern history and acted as an accelerant for these global threats, which know no borders. But this tragedy also catalyzed the global community to act, none more than the United States. The U.S. government mobilized an immediate response, and in the days and weeks that followed, more than 20,000 U.S. troops worked alongside our development agencies, and diplomatic personnel to provide emergency relief services.

America has always stood for a belief in human dignity and a willingness to help the less fortunate in the world, and our efforts in Haiti exemplify American generosity at its best.  However, while our country is compassionate, U.S. foreign assistance is also tool to advance our national interests. During Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Haiti earlier this week, she reminded the world that our humanitarian, development, and diplomatic efforts to rebuild the country were the result of a “decision in this Administration to make Haiti a foreign policy priority.”

Much remains to be done to restore Haiti to the relatively stable tourism, manufacturing, and agricultural mini-hub it was at one time, but there are pockets of hope such as the one in Caracol, which Secretary Clinton visited last Monday, October 22. The purpose of the trip was to commend the progress being made, and she brought with her was a diverse government delegation that included Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, USAID Deputy Director Don Steinberg, Special Coordinator for Haiti Tom Adams, and State Department Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills, who regularly makes trips to Haiti.

The U.S. government has been working on issues ranging from health to agriculture, rule-of-law, infrastructure, energy, manufacturing, and more. However, this particular trip was to celebrate the opening of the new Caracol Industrial Park, which included a “star-studded” ceremony attended by former President Bill Clinton, billionaire Richard Branson, fashion designer Donna Karan, and actors Sean Penn, Ben Stiller, and Maria Bello. Both the current and former Haitian Presidents were also in attendance. In addition to the park’s opening ceremony, the delegation visited a USAID housing project and attended an investor’s luncheon hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the leading multilateral donor in Haiti. The hope, according to President Bill Clinton, is for the park to act as “an economic anchor for the region.”

This section of the country was spared from the earthquake’s destruction and is also home to beaches, coastlines, the largest fortress in the Americas, la Citadelle, and now, a second industrial park. These parks, which were in the works prior to the earthquake, became a State Department priority and materialized in collaboration with the Clinton Foundation, Haitian government, and IDB. The parks’ main tenant is Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd, the South Korean manufacturing giant that supplies American retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart, Gap, and Levi’s.  Large U.S. companies, such as Origin Holdings and Sherwin Williams, also utilize the industrial parks. In her remarks at the opening ceremony, Secretary Clinton told the audience the Administration knows “very well that long-term prosperity cannot just come from the provision of aid,” and emphasized “there must be trade and investment like we have seen here today.”

With the help of American foreign assistance, this northern region has taken difficult, but mostly continuous, steps forward. For example, the airport has been improved to accommodate larger planes, such as the one the Secretary flew in on, and there are roads, ports, and energy projects underway – setting the stage for future investment. Haiti’s close proximity to the United States and favorable trade legislations (HOPE and HELP) also provide duty-free access to American markets and promote the expansion of American manufacturing companies.

But widespread suffering sadly continues to characterize Haiti, which is home to more NGOs and faith-based groups than any other country in the world, the majority of which are American. They play an important role in the development assistance ecosystem, and our foreign assistance dollars are leveraged and extended by partnering with these groups, as well as with the private sector, governments, multilateral institutions, NGOs, philanthropy, and others. Such is the case in northern Haiti, and all over the world.

We need to strengthen our diplomatic and development programs, which also must continue to become more strategic, accountable, and transparent. Effective foreign assistance is a powerful tool to build healthier, safer, and more prosperous societies, especially in a country 700 miles off the coast of Florida.