While doing my Ireland piece, I ran across an article on an Irish billionaire and his doings on the godforsaken one-third-of-an-island nation of Haiti. Since I haven't written much at all on the place for a while (the last diary here), I thought I'd do a whole thang on the subject.
Denis O’Brien, an impatient Irish billionaire who tends to make his points with a few choice profanities, is determined to change all that.
On a recent sunny morning, he presided over the opening of the 50th school that his vast telecommunications company, Digicel, has rebuilt since the quake struck in 2010 — and then he promptly pledged to build another 80 schools by 2014.
It kind of reminds me of the guy who wrote Three Cups of Tea and what he did in AfPak, except that O'Brien didn't make s**t up. The head of Digicel hasn't been completely altruistic about his investment in the Carribean nation, but it's fair to credit the guy for his investments and donations there. Also, O'Brien didn't infect half a million with cholera and kill 7,000. That was done by UN troops, those dirty Nepals. Other investors are stepping in.
Two years after the quake, there are still over a half million living in tent camps. The reasons for the slow pace of reconstruction are myriad. Bottom line, the housing situation still sucks, and Rolling Stone has called it a "disaster", despite Sean Penn's efforts. Out of $5 billion pledged, only around two-fifths have been funded. Being a real estate guy, I'd love to see the place get decent water, sewage disposal systems and land surveys, with some paved roads thrown in. Couldn't hurt.
In response to the situation, thousands of Haitians have migrated to Brazil and its 5.2% unemployment rate, thanks to Ecuador's flexible entry requirements, among other things. City dwellers are being coaxed into the countryside by a group of dogoodniks, which sounds like a good idea. Others are trying the boat-person route to Cuba and points beyond, which sounds like a bad idea. Other well-intentioned bleeding hearts are trying to restore Haiti one village at a time, which sounds like a good idea. The Venezuelan socialist wannabe dictator is sending fuel at discounted prices, which also sounds like a good idea, even though Hugo is having his own little housing shortage problem. The evil moneylenders at World Bank approved a $255 million package for one of Bill Clinton's NGOs to provide housing and improvement projects, and we'll see if that's a good idea.
Anyway, the status quo is little changed from pre-earthquake days, i.e., it's a badly governed, corrupt under-capitalized mess, chock-filled with destitute citizens and squalor. We'll see if Haitian lives move toward the better in 2012. Will things get better? I'm tepidly optimistic to mildly pessimistic that they will.
UPDATE: If you're a Haitian who's living in a Port au Prince hovel, what's the most effective way to turn your country around? Leave.
We need more rapid ways to get relief directly to disaster victims, including the hundreds of thousands still suffering in the aftermath of the Haiti quake.
Luckily, we already have one: migration. Immediately after the quake, about 200,000 Haitians living in the United States without proper documents were granted "temporary protected status," which allowed them to work -- and send money home -- without fear of deportation. That single step may be the greatest contribution America has made towards Haiti's reconstruction to date. That's because the 535,000 Haitian migrants in the United States send home money -- remittances -- worth as much as $2 billion a year. An early estimate by World Bank economist Dilip Ratha suggested that the temporary protected designation might have been worth as much as $360 million in additional remittances to Haiti in 2010 alone -- that's more than total U.S. aid disbursements to the country in 2010 and 2011.
Beyond being a powerful short-term recovery tool, migration is vital to the long-term development of Haiti as well. Economist Michael Clemens, my colleague at the Center for Global Development, suggests that four out of five Haitians who have escaped destitution have done so by leaving the country. Meanwhile, the potential benefit of a diaspora for Haiti's future prospects have been repeatedly demonstrated: one need only look at Indians working in Silicon Valley who were key to creating Bangalore's booming IT industry or Africans spending time abroad who are responsible for creating new export industries back home. Across countries, larger migrant populations lead to greater trade, investment, and learning.
In other words, Indian immigration to the U.S. put the "bang" in Bangalore, to quote a line from a certain movie. The benefits would be similar for Haiti, if the U.S. government would let more Haitians in and risk a little higher unemployment.