Haiti is the basket case of the Western Hemisphere, but that doesn’t mean the country is hopeless.
To a lot of people it seems that way. Still, when you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up.
The economic mainstay is agriculture, which has been in decline. The earthquake, which devastated the main cities, left the countryside intact.
Even as people struggled to find water, medical care, and to just survive, fresh produce began to appear on the streets and amid the ruins: pineapples, bananas, vegetables.
Vendors were selling to anyone with cash to pay.
There is a little sign of hope in that. Any old hope will do. Agriculture accounts for the bulk of Haiti’s employment, about 25% of its national income, much of its meager exports, and a bulwark against total disaster.
The bad news is that agriculture is a mess: Deforestation has ruined the land and swept away top soil. Irrigation systems have declined. Subsistence farming on tiny plots means Haiti cannot feed itself.
There is little credit, few inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides, and productivity is low. Many leave the land to swell the cities such as Port au Prince, which cannot support them. The earthquake caused an exodus back to the land and villages.
The cash crops that accounted for exports, such as coffee, cocoa and sugar, have been on the decline. On top of that no one wants to put private investment money into Haiti. The country has a bad business climate and ranks high on the corruption list.
Haiti does export some fresh fruit, particularly mangoes, along with spices and some other cash crops. Still, it has a big trade deficit.
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere has little to sell, a ravaged countryside, no credit, no investment hope, an 80% poverty rate, few skilled workers, 50% illiteracy, dysfunctional government, inadequate roads and ports.
The main export is people, the main import is money sent back by the Haitians living abroad, many in the U.S. For a long time, the symbol of Haiti was the rickety boat filled with people drifting off the coast of Florida as Haitians tried to flee.
A lot of people want to help Haiti. Here’s the poorest country hit by the worst disaster.
Out of almost 10 million people, how many millions would leave if they could? Other countries don’t want or need millions of unskilled workers. That means helping Haitians in Haiti.
Haiti is probably going to be a welfare state dependent on foreign aid for a long time to come. Growth and improvement will have to take advantage of what Haiti has to offer: plenty of labor at low cost, a warm tropical climate, and a location not too distant from North American markets.
The best bets? Assembly plants, clothing and apparel factories, some specialty crops for midwinter sales.
Haiti produces mangoes, bananas, plantains, sweet potatoes and yams, citrus, avocados, pineapples, coconuts, melons, okra, cassava, taro (malanga), spices and other crops. It could grow more rice and perhaps grow chickens in modern poultry raising facilities.
Haiti sits in the Caribbean Sea, rich in seafood.
The goal would be to feed Haitians and get some export money. There might be a role for tourism. A few cruise ships stop in Haiti, but far from Port au Prince. The French-Creole language and culture, so familiar in New Orleans, has real appeal to many.
Money will have to come from aid agencies, the World Banks, Inter-American Development Bank, and richer countries.
Help and advice should come from hard-nosed skilled business people, such as those in the produce business, who know the realities and the needs of the market. To get any investment there will have to be loan guarantees and insurance.
Mere idealism and an urge to help are not enough. There are thousands of groups in Haiti trying to help. That’s good for the short term.
For the long term one needs to follow Ronald Reagan’s famous advice: Don’t just give people a fish, teach them how to fish and they can feed themselves.
A modest goal would be for Haiti to reach, say, half the standard of living of the Dominican Republic, its neighbor on the island of Hispaniola.
Many people note the contrast: the Dominican Republic is lush and green with relative prosperity, while Haiti languishes, denuded and in poverty.
In a Graham Greene novel about Haiti, The Comedians, a well-meaning and affluent American couple go to Haiti with a plan to distribute vegetarian products and promote vegetarianism. A bemused local resident comments, “You’ve come to the right place. Most Haitians are already vegetarians — they can’t afford to buy meat.”
Countries that have neglected agriculture in a drive to develop have often not done well. They try to make a great leap into manufacturing or other industries while ignoring the basics, such as food production.
Basic needs come first.
How do you think fresh produce could help Haiti recover? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.