By Garry Pierre-Pierre
Shortly before he passed away in 2006 my half-brother requested that I helped his three children. For more than six years I did just that from paying for housing, to food, to education. But when my children were about to enter college, I knew that my finances were about to tighten so I told my niece that she could no longer count on the monthly remittances. But I gave her the option of giving her a lump sum of money to invest in whatever enterprise that would allow her to be self-dependent.
I made it clear that afterwards she could not rely on my largesse because I would be financially drained for about a decade because of the cost of college. I would however be willing to help in case of an unforeseen situation. But the quotidian needs were not my concern.
I share this anecdote as an example of what many Haitians here with dependents in Haiti need to think twice about. This system of sending money because is not sustainable and frankly not the best use of their scarce financial resources. According to experts, Haitian Diaspora sends roughly $2 billion a year in remittances to friends and relatives back home, mostly for consumption items like food, clothing and other expenses.
The majority of the money quickly leaves Haiti because Haiti doesn’t produce much of the staple products, which are imported from the United States and the Dominican Republic. Before I go on I want to make it clear that I’m not asking people to stop remittances. First of all, what people do with their money is none of my business. However, I consider the community’s financial well- being and financial empowerment to be part of my business.
Supporting the less fortunate among us is laudable and should be applauded. But I believe the best way to help Haiti and those behind is to invest. To do otherwise is to encourage a permanent class of dependency akin to a welfare system where people never get out of poverty.
We see it now with nongovernmental organizations and their so called development aid which after decades and billions spent on Haiti, the country remains worse off than when aid began pouring in.
We need to break that cycle and as Diaspora, whose heart is in the right place, we need to rethink our strategy and start investing instead of donating. Haiti is a country full of talented people — from artists to dress makers to food producers, all who are yearning for an opportunity to live with dignity instead of waiting for handouts from whomever, be it foreign actors or family members.
It is not easy and frankly few things are and progress at times that require rethinking an old method. To back up our view on this issue, the Haitian Times has decided to launch an ecommerce site, www.belmachann.com, which will go live in a few weeks. There you will find everything from jewelry to artworks to beauty products and food stuff. You will be supporting Haitians working with dignity to provide for their families. You should consider ways to finance a cousin’s talent to bring products into the market.
Technology has opened the gate for all sorts of business opportunities and we intend to make a difference by providing Haitian producers a chance to sell their products. We are also targeting products created by Haitian Americans who also lack marketing and distribution venues for their goods. Many of them get discouraged and close production and others struggle to eke out a living.
While there are ecommerce platforms like Amazon and Shopify, these small enterprises cannot scale to become profitable. The fees to place products on these platforms can pile up and make selling on these giant sites prohibitively expensive and cut deeply into their already thin profit margins.
We are hopeful that Belmachann and other sites that are sure to enter the fray will show the community that it is better to invest in their relatives instead of sending money to them for consumption. Investing in people will stimulate Haiti’s economy and wean the population off this mendicant attitude.
As I’ve often said in this column, sending that kind of money regularly does help people survive. I believe that helping people thrive is a better option. Even NGOs are coming around to this way of thinking. Organizations like Fonkoze and Hope for Haiti have economic investment projects where they provide loans and technical aid to farmers and entrepreneurs to scale up their enterprises.
The challenge has always been to open new markets, particularly in the United States, where the de facto Haitian middle class reside. Despite the chasm, they are looking for a taste and nostalgia of home.
Bridging that gap has always been part of our original mission. But it took technology and a change in attitude about shopping online to make it a reality. People are no longer spooked by the idea of using their credit card online because of fraud and other online grafts. Credit cards can cancel fraudulent activities. With overnight and two-day shipping standard practices people in that space we are assured that orders will not linger on a truck weeks after they are placed.
Haitians in the homeland should be aware that the system of remittance will not last forever. As another generation of Haitian-Americans emerge, they feel no obligation to send money back to Haiti for one simple reason: Their connection and devoir will not be the same as it is for my and the previous generations.
When the Haitian government realizes that fait accompli and can no longer rely on that money to their GDP they will have two choices, create opportunities locally or descend into an economic maelstrom. At that point I’m sure the government and the private sector will reach out to Haitian Diaspora and figure out how we can have a better partnership.
The Haitian Times is preparing for that eventuality. Our goal is to be part of the system that breaks this vicious cycle of dependency and provide tangible opportunity for a people yearning for a chance at a better life. I believe this will be the beginning of a stunning turnaround and a new narrative about Haiti’s restoration as a jewel of the Caribbean instead of its moniker of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. No Haitian should be pleased by our sisters and brothers being seen as a group of drifters unwanted by countries near and far from the region.