A Role for Entrepreneurs in Haiti

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

Haitians have received help from governments, the private sector and the philanthropic community around the world to deal with the awful devastation, but the long term goal of rebuilding a nation and constructing institutions from scratch will require sustained commitment to the country. I can’t think of a better group to enlist in this task than Haitian entrepreneurs. The needs of the businesses affected in this region are extraordinary, but so is their potential to become agents for restoration.

Part of the efforts of the international community should be devoted to help entrepreneurs survive this crisis and help other businesses emerge through opportunities related to the rebuilding of the country. Improvements in the health, number, and size of businesses will generate job opportunities and add vitality to the economy.

What can entrepreneurs do in the midst of a crisis of this nature and magnitude? You might be thinking that entrepreneurship has no place in a society where there are only minimal traces of an economy, but the New York Times recently reported on entrepreneurs engaging in business transactions out a desire to return to normalcy in Léogâne, a city near the epicenter of the earthquake (see “Near Quake’s Epicenter, a City Ready for Business”). Anything from huts to haircuts to personal care products to meals are being offered in this city for a price. Entrepreneurs can do even more. Think of the construction contractors and the many service providers that will be needed to put donations to good use.

Of course, the role of corporations, philanthropy and governments will continue to be necessary. The success of Haitian businesses will require not only funds, but also high-skilled human capital and technology. To this end, an entrepreneurship initiative for Haiti could channel the expertise of Haitian “diasporans.” There are many Haitian entrepreneurs and skilled professionals abroad, such as Fritz Armand, who left Haiti in 1974 and became a successful engineer in Miami, and Harry Casimir, a Haitian-born businessman who opened an IT business there just before the earthquake. Diasporans could mentor local entrepreneurs and organize to invest in local businesses. Development efforts elsewhere have benefitted greatly from Diasporas’ human, social, and financial capital. The Organization of American States recognized their potential contribution and will convene an international gathering of Haitian groups in March to ensure that the Haitian Diaspora is included in the reconstruction. Even before the earthquake, other efforts to leverage Diaspora networks sprung. As the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, President Bill Clinton has recruited Haitian-born entrepreneurs, and the United States Agency for International Development started a pilot program to stimulate the Diaspora's direct investment in Haiti through a program that promotes foreign and local business partnerships that can generate jobs and wealth.

Entrepreneurship is the lifeblood of any economy. It is a powerful force to stimulate jobs and expand human dignity.  Efforts to move Haiti from chaos to stability should muster this force. Such an effort would require continuous coordination with organizations, but would empower entrepreneurs to become active agents in the reconstruction of their country.

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