Tuesday, May 29, 2012



OTTAWA — Haiti has long been synonymous in the minds of many with hardship and tragedy, poverty and corruption, instability and death. The Caribbean nation’s history and recent events, particularly the devastating earthquake of January 2010, have done little to change that perception.

It’s a fact acknowledged by Haiti’s first ambassador to Canada in nearly six years, Frantz Liautaud, who says such views are outdated and have held back his country’s ability to wean itself off foreign aid.

“What we need to do is change our image and make sure people get the right image,” Liautaud said in an exclusive interview with Postmedia News Friday.

And in the Conservative government, where a “re-orientation” is expected to begin funnelling tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid to economic development, Haiti appears to have found a willing partner.

Last year, Haitians elected singer-turned-politician Michel Martelly as president. Martelly wasted no time making his government’s top priority the attraction of foreign investment, with the idea of tackling the country’s 40 per cent unemployment rate.

This has involved promoting the country’s coastline as a tourist destination, as well as the opportunities available in the agricultural sector, natural resources and others. Haiti’s embassies and diplomatic network are seen as instrumental in taking that message to the world.

“The Martelly government was clear from Day 1 that for Haiti to get back into the position it should have in the region and in the world, we have to increase investment in Haiti,” said Liautaud, a former businessman and recent president of the Haitian-Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

A few Canadian companies, such as engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, have operations in Haiti, but those are mainly related to contracts such as building infrastructure and do not actually result in investment.

Like counterparts around the world, Canadian companies remain worried about Haiti’s security, its lack of trained workers, its vulnerability to natural disasters, and the political instability that has long plagued the nation.

Liautaud acknowledged the concerns but insisted many are overstated — security, for example, has improved significantly in recent years, while the government is working arguably better than many remember. And for those who take a chance, he said, the opportunities are there.

“The first impression is it’s too risky,” Liautaud said. “But obviously the bigger the risk, the bigger the opportunity to get a good return on your investment.”

Reassuring words, however, can only go so far, which is why Haiti is hoping foreign aid donors such as Canada will help encourage companies to take a serious look at the Caribbean nation.

With the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan, Haiti has become Canada’s largest recipient of international assistance, receiving more than $100 million a year.

Much of that has been focused on providing emergency food supplies, health care and education for children, and support for the Caribbean nation’s weak government institutions. But Liautaud said he has received indications from Canadian officials more of that aid — much of which currently goes to international development groups like Care, World Vision and the Red Cross — will be tied to economic development.

“From the reading that I have (this) is exactly what the Canadian government is looking into. Making sure that whatever money is invested in Haiti is invested to create sustainable economic development.”

The Conservative government has made a point of prioritizing economic development when it comes to Canadian foreign assistance, seeing it as the best way for developing countries to become self-sufficient.

But the government has faced criticism for using aid to help Canadian mining companies, for example, and there are concerns that the focus on business is coming at the expense of support for fundamentals like food security, health care and education.

“There is no sustainable economic development without social peace,” Liautaud acknowledged. “So it’s a balancing act. But what Haitians as a whole need the most is to be put to work.”

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