“Dear friends of Haiti, we are indeed on the right track,” said newly minted Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe to a standing ovation at Monday’s Clinton Global Initiative session on Haiti’s future. “Slowly but surely we are rising from the ashes.”
Two years after the disastrous earthquake that left thousands dead and millions homeless, the country is slowly building itself back up. The next four years, Lamothe said, will witness massive reconstruction of infrastructure, from roads to schools to government buildings that were destroyed in 2010. Some progress has already been made in Haiti: 1.25 million children are now enrolled in primary school, and 40 percent of Lamothe’s Cabinet is female. (“I’m surrounded by women!” he joked.) But in a country where 50 percent of the population is living on less than $1 a day, Lamothe’s first priority is the eradication of extreme poverty—a sentiment echoed by almost every speaker at “Haiti: Lessons for the Future.”
The Clinton Global Initiative has ramped up its efforts in Haiti in recent years, with $352 million in commitments dedicated to the impoverished nation over the past three years. President Clinton took a special interest to Haiti and was appointed the U.N. special envoy to help mitigate disaster relief after the hurricane in 2010. Lamothe thanked Clinton for his “unconditional and unwavering support to the Haitian cause,” calling him a “genuine friend” to the Haitian people. “Nations don’t die when they can count on the solidarity you all have shown,” the prime minister told the audience.
Taking the stage, Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was unabashed in her criticism of how Western nations had dealt the vulnerable country in the past. “We were prone to pursue what we deemed good for Haiti,” she acknowledged. But now, said Mills, the American government’s mind-set has evolved to “focus on Haiti’s policies instead of ours.” She said she hopes emerging business ventures and government efforts—they’re working on a new electrical grid, solar farm, and housing settlements—will be able to bring out the best the island nation has to offer. “There’s a gap between what Haiti is and what it has potential to be,” Mills said.
Longtime Haiti investor Anne Hastings, chief executive of Fonkoze Financial Services, made a statement that drew cheers from a crowd used to hearing about government corruption and neglect in the country: “I’ve worked in Haiti for 16 years and this is the first time I’ve seen a well-thought-out attack on extreme poverty by the government,” she said.
Hastings and Mills’s faith was mirrored by all the speakers who discussed projects and investments in the region. “Haiti is able to unite people,” Mills said to a cast of all-star supporters of the Caribbean nation who turned out to talk about the country’s problems. Chelsea Clinton sat in the front, across from Russell Simmons and Petra Nemcova. Behind the two was Paul Farmer, president Clinton’s other half as the U.N. special envoy to Haiti. Hunched in the back of the room, long hair slicked back, was Sean Penn, who was praised for his efforts in Haiti both by Clinton and by Digicel founder Denis O’Brien, who called Penn’s charity the one thing in the past year that has made the most profound difference.
“Haiti is about to become a symbol of the future,” announced president Clinton, who made closing remarks. And, channeling Hillary Clinton, who said in the opening plenary Monday that the goal of Western aid workers and governments should be “putting ourselves out of business,” commitment makers at the Clinton Global Initiative look forward to the day their efforts are no longer necessary. “Our long-term objective is to work ourselves out of a job,” said Sasha Kramer, cofounder of a waste-recycling project in Haiti.
President Clinton looked proudly at the rows of seats filled with potential to make that goal come true. “He’s the man who put us in the room and locked the door,” O’Brien said. And his tactic seemed to have worked.