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Haiti’s other side: The diaspora’s solidarity and realism
Haiti’s earthquake has dramatically impacted not only the island nation, but also its migrant communities. As many now highlight the importance of involving the diaspora in reconstruction efforts, it is crucial to measure the willingness and capacity of Haitian migrants to support their country —which may be more limited than what is commonly assumed.
According to the author’s estimates, in 2008 roughly one million Haitians worldwide sent a total of US$1.2 billion to Haiti, mostly from the United States, followed by the Dominican Republic and Canada. However, their efforts to remit were affected by the recession, reducing the volume of remittances sent in 2009 by 12 per cent. Even with this drop in transfers, remittances to Haiti were more than double the value of Haiti’s exports and almost as important as the income from imports of goods. There is no source of foreign income as important to Haiti’s economy as remittances.
Besides these family transfers, the Haitian community, particularly individuals living in the United States and Canada, is actively organized into hometown associations that contribute to small projects with the homeland. There are at least 300 such organizations in Canada and the U.S. donating US$10,000 each to their communities for social projects. They also actively consume goods from their home country, significantly contributing to the local productive base in Haiti.
With talks of Haiti’s reconstruction, many people consider the role of the Haitian diaspora as a development player. The reality is that Haitian migrants are familiar with the continual socio-political turmoil and natural disasters that affect their nation, and they always move swiftly to provide help within their means. Many ideas have been proposed to involve the diaspora through investment ventures, stock markets, philanthropic partnerships with development agents and more.
Indeed, thinking creatively is essential during these times of uncertainty for Haiti and perhaps these ideas can provide maximum benefit with a more informed understanding of the willingness and capacity of Haitian migrants to support their country. Normatively, expecting Haitians to be involved in their homeland’s development is a complex value judgment that understates the oppression or neglect that pushed them to migrate. Haitian migrants have mixed feelings: they routinely express resentment toward Haiti’s politicians, yet largely demonstrate a desire to help. There are also significant divisions among the diaspora itself.
Materially, the capacity of the diaspora to help its homeland beyond current levels is quite limited. Seven out of 10 Haitian migrants send remittances home, two out of 10 migrants take up philanthropic work and many bring back goods from their home country; thus, they are already providing substantial support. Yet, Haitians are among the poorest migrant communities in the Americas. The average annual income of Haitians in the United States is less than US$28,000 and their remittance transfers represent one-third of the average sent by other Latin American migrants. Moreover, their philanthropic work, albeit important, is often disconnected from development strategies because they lack the assessment needed to measure impact.
Operationally, envisioning reconstruction projects that involve the Haitian diaspora is an exercise that has to carefully consider the correspondence between the strategic goals and the capacities of and potential benefits to migrants. Efforts to involve the diaspora in the reconstruction of Haiti without a corresponding impact will yield limited results and increase disappointment among the Haitian migrant community.
Perhaps the best way to involve the diaspora in reconstruction is to facilitate and leverage their ongoing activities in ways that effectively promote development. Three important steps include building migrants’ confidence toward Haiti, improving the effectiveness of money transfers and maximizing their financial benefits, and strengthening the prevailing transnational links through capacity-building and technical assistance in Haiti.
First, the distrust between the Haitian diaspora and government can be mitigated by increasing understanding of the realities Haiti faces on a day-to-day basis, promoting field trips by Haitian leaders to visit the diaspora and vice versa. The Ministry of the Diaspora could also be strengthened with new resources and legitimate diaspora representation.
Second, given the importance of remittances, it is important to modernize the payment networks and expand financial access for remittance senders and recipients. Prior to the earthquake, Haiti had only close to 400 remittance transfer points, a relatively small, insufficient number given the volume of monthly transfers that enter the country. Only half of those points were held by financial institutions and few had branches in rural Haiti. Modernizing the networks and promoting access will contribute to development: half a million of remittance recipient households have a stock of savings between US$200 and US$1,000, the majority kept informally. Funnelling those savings through banks and microfinance institutions could increase the country’s meager credit portfolio available for small businesses, which currently represents only five per cent of all credit. Moreover, the revamped payment networks should incorporate the money sent from the Dominican Republic where a majority of the more than 300,000 migrants remit informally because it is expensive and difficult to do so through formal means.
Third, Haitian philanthropy can benefit from substantive technical advice about what needs are more pressing in the recipient communities and what they can achieve with their current investments. Moreover, strengthening the trade capacity of small producers who cater to the demand of Haitian migrants for homeland goods is a sound approach since over 80 per cent of Haitian migrants spend at least US$500 per year on these. The prevailing networks between traders and distributors will benefit greatly from such development assistance.
The future of Haiti is uncertain and development mantras aside, the best solution lies in the realism of the possible, which will motivate the Haitian community living abroad to further engage with Haiti.
Manuel Orozco is the Director of remittances and development at the Inter-American Dialogue.