Crises hinder Haiti’s development

Marketplace Staff Jan 25, 2010

Crises hinder Haiti’s development

Marketplace Staff Jan 25, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: There’s a big Haiti meeting happening in Montreal, Canada today. A planning session for how to organize international aid in the months and years to come. We will talk about that in just a couple of minutes.

First though, a look at the present and future of the Haitian economy. Most of it has been destroyed. And as the rescue work on the ground turns into recovery, Sabri Ben-Achour reports that the country’s businesses are going to need as much relief as its people.

Sabri Ben-Achour: There is a market near the sea in Port-au-Prince. Vendors, women mostly, sit behind fruits and vegetables piled in neat little stacks on the bare dirt, under the shade of driftwood and sheet metal.

This market wasn’t too badly damaged in the earthquake, precisely because it’s made of such flimsy, light material. This is just about at the bottom of Haiti’s economy, but it’s a big part of that economy.

SOLANGE JEAN: Manioc, pumpkin, tomatoes, and pepper.

Solange Jean is selling cassava, potatoes, and pumpkins on the sidewalk. She says she was among the first to return to the market, two days after the earthquake hit.

JEAN: The country is destroyed. My house is destroyed, I lost 10 members of my family. There is no more business because everybody that survived went out of town. So there is no business, there is no money.

Solange gets her produce from the countryside, but she says that’s getting harder.

JEAN: It’s more and more expensive. There is no fuel, no transport and the people that bring these things to me are few now.

I ask if people have been trying to barter more and more. Not more than usual, she says.

JEAN: We are a poor country. Bartering is normal.

As she sits on the ground, thousands of flies swarming around her, she admits there are people even poorer than she.

JEAN: Sometimes I just give people my vegetables because I can see there is just no way they can pay.

But setting up a pile of vegetables on the street is a lot easier than rebuilding a three-story supermarket. Larger companies will be a lot slower and a lot more expensive to rebuild, if they rebuild at all.

RICHARD Le BRUN: We lost about 15 buildings, and we have about 50 buildings.

Richard Le Brun is part of one such business, the Mevs group, a Haitian company that runs this major port.

On one side, crews are trying to repair broken piers. On the other, MedEvac helicopters are evacuating earthquake victims to hospital.

Le BRUN: We know we have to rebuild but frankly, we don’t see how we’re going to get out of it because the bank’s not lending money right now, it’s very capital intensive, and it’s a very long payback period.

It’s hard to finance construction in Haiti, Le Brun says, because rents are so cheap.

Le BRUN: We definitely do not have the means to do that kind of investment and now to supply the additional demand for space in Port-au-Prince. Without outside help, without foreign direct investment, or without grants or long-term financing, it’s close to impossible to rebuild.

The Mevs group was going to build a major industrial park with international aid. But money for new projects will have to wait for old ones to be rebuilt. And that is Haiti’s economic problem writ large.

PAMELA COX: They are pulling resources that were originally pledged for development into responding to the crisis.

Pamela Cox is the regional vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank.

COX: Because of this crisis, because of the four hurricanes it faced in August, because of the food crisis it faced in April 2008 — each time Haiti faces a crisis like this, they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.

There are glimmers of hope. There will be reconstruction jobs, new construction will likely be stronger and more energy efficient, but that’s a very expensive glimmer. The U.N. estimates the quake will cost Haiti 25 percent of its GDP. Cox says foreign disaster aid — at a billion dollars pledged so far — will likely not be enough to keep Haiti’s future development from being set back by decades.

From Port-au-Prince, I’m Sabri Ben-Achour for Marketplace.

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