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Will Haiti tap its overseas talent?

By Joel Dreyfuss

When the U.N. convenes a group of wealthy countries to declare their financial commitment to rebuild Haiti on Wednesday, Haitian-Americans will be paying careful attention. Their focus will not be simply on how much money the "donor" countries are putting up, but whether there will be a role for the two million Haitians and hyphenated Haitians living in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Like many poor countries, Haiti has suffered a massive brain drain over the last 40 years. One international agency estimates that 80 percent of all college-educated Haitians live outside of the country. Many have been highly successful. The second largest ethnic group of doctors in New York City public hospitals is Haitian. There are Haitian academics, police administrators, middle and senior managers in corporations and elected officials all over the U.S.

I attended a dinner of my fellow Haitian-American professionals in New York last night that included bankers, lawyers, a judge, senior civil servants, a philanthropic executive, several doctors, an architect, an accountant and an art director. The number-one topic of conversation was how much they wanted to contribute to the reconstruction of Haiti and how they worried about being shut out.

It would seem logical for Haiti to tap a deep overseas talent pool that could bring first-world expertise and an intimate knowledge of Haiti's quirks and culture to the rebuilding effort. But none around the table were assured that their voices, their vision or even their skills will be in the reconstruction.

It's interesting to compare the treatment of Haitians abroad and their counterparts from the Dominican Republic, their neighbors on the island of Hispaniola. Dominicans in the U.S. are deeply integrated into the activities of their home country. They can hold dual citizenship, and they can vote in Dominican elections. Dominican presidential candidates campaign in New York's Dominican neighborhoods and, in turn, Dominicans have elected presidents who spent most of their professional lives in the U.S.

By contrast, Haitians abroad have long been held at arm's length and even viewed with some suspicion in their native country. For years, the "Diaspora" label for Haitians abroad was considered an insult. Haiti's constitution forbids dual citizenship. Candidates for political office must have lived in the country five consecutive years leading to an election.
These restrictions have long been driven by fears that the Diaspos would compete with local talent for top positions and -- worse -- introduce concepts such as honest government, transparency and pursuit of the common good that have long been too rare in Haiti.

The expected flood of aid money -- and concern abroad that there is not enough management talent on the ground -- has the Haitian power structure singing a different tune. A PowerPoint presentation released last week by a powerful group of business leaders in Haiti opens with a slide touting the Diaspora's role. A bill voted by the current Haitian legislature would allow dual citizenship, but it can only become law if passed again in the next legislative term. A proposed oversight commission that would track spending and battle corruption in the reconstruction gives a seat to a representative of the Haitian Diaspora, but no vote in the proceedings.

While Haitians abroad will be grateful for the world community's contributions to rebuilding their native land, they will pay even closer attention to the structures that are put in place to monitor the spending -- and whether they can win a significant role in rebuilding Haiti Cherie.

By Joel Dreyfuss  | March 30, 2010; 4:16 PM ET
Categories:  Dreyfuss  | Tags:  Joel Dreyfuss  
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Mr. Dreyfuss,
I am a concerned citizen of Haiti. Part of what you write is true, however, I believe that the major problem with the diaspora is the way it sees us. Like most Haitians, I also have family in the US, Canada and France with whom I keep in touch. I also have many friends overseas. They left the country in the early 60s when living in Haiti was pure terror. And this is where it hurts: the diaspora sees us as traitors and we see the diaspora as cowards who ran and left us behind, they jumped ship! Furthermore, the few political experiences we have had with them has been negative: Mr. Latortue, for example, who was not at all as clean as the US newspapers made him out to be. The corruption never stopped. Of course we would encourage intelligent and concerned citizens to assist us in building Haiti (not rebuild, mind you). But we are sceptic. Who will guarantee the money will be put to use for that purpose. There are already some rumors of corruption, which have yet to be proven, but we do not trust anyone. Can you blame us: this is the Barbary Coast. It will take a miracle to save this country of ours. And we are beginning to lose hope. Please do not compare us to the Dominicans, our history is not the same, although we share an island.

Posted by: bizou20 | March 31, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Concerned Haitian Citizen,
The Haitian people are a beautiful people. You are correct when you say that "it will take a miracle to save this country of ours". Haiti does need a miracle, but miracles do happen. The country and its people need to truly turn to Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of us all. If they do, a miracle will indeed take place - full restoration. This is impossible to take place by man - only our Lord can effect a change of this magnitude. And He will if we only ask, turn to Him, and cooperate with His desire and plan to restore. God bless Haiti!

Posted by: williambojan | March 31, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

The Haitian Diaspora has very good intention and skills to help Haiti. A formal Organization representing the Diaspora needs to be formed to instruct the public here and overseas as to the mission and objectives of the organization. A representative of the Diaspora should be in office in Haiti to exercise contracted and agreed subjects with the Haitian Government and the Haitian Diaspora. The Haitian Diaspora should be a political force backed by a formal organization with its own rules and regulations. The Diaspora has to unify with one portal point of entry .

Posted by: bernadetteshiels | April 6, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

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