Diaspora Integration and Investment in Private Sector Development

Kenneth H. Merten
Special Coordinator and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Haiti and Deputy Assistant Secretary 
Marvin Conference Center at George Washington University
Washington, DC
June 14, 2016

Mèsi anpil pou entwodiksyon-an, Firmin. I would like to thank you and the rest of HRA’s board and staff for kindly inviting me to speak at your 7th annual investment expo. HRA began organizing these conferences following the 2010 earthquake when I was U.S. Ambassador to Haiti. Six years later, I’m pleased to see that HRA continues to organize these events and has expanded its focus beyond Haiti to include business development and investment in the broader Caribbean. We at the State Department really appreciate the efforts of the Haiti Renewal Alliance.

I would be remiss if I did not also thank the sponsors and partners whose work and dedication made this conference possible.

This afternoon I will take a few minutes to talk about the role of diaspora communities in the development of their countries of heritage, success stories from Haitian-American initiatives undertaken in Haiti, and programs that our embassies offer to the diaspora. Although my examples draw from the U.S. government’s engagement with Haiti and Haitian-Americans, where the bulk of my experience lies, our initiatives are transferrable to other diaspora communities as well.

The rich tapestry of America is woven with multi-cultural threads. The United States is home to millions of families who emigrated to the U.S. from nearly every other country in the world. More than 60 million Americans are first or second-generation immigrants. From Croatians in Chicago to Ethiopians in Washington, immigrant communities help build cities in the United States, while also supporting development back home. Many of the nearly 1 million Haitian-Americans living in the United States send about $2 billion dollars back to Haiti every year. This represents 22% of Haiti’s GDP, a larger portion of GDP than any other country in the Caribbean. These remittances provide a life-line to families that help feed and send their children to school.

Yet the role of the diaspora goes beyond wiring a hundred dollars a month to their families and friends, and that’s why we’re here today. We know that diaspora communities already play an integral role in the development of their native countries. We believe that these same Americans can do more.

I meet regularly with groups from the Haitian Diaspora, in Washington as well as in other cities in the United States. I am always impressed with their fervent desire to engage in Haiti. Some are students eager to return to their native land to help rebuild the country. Others are looking for opportunities for commercial investment. Many have their own ideas of what needs to be done in Haiti, and are looking for financial support from the U.S. government or other groups. None, however, are indifferent.

I am particularly encouraged by stories of young entrepreneurs like Yve-Car Momperousse who founded Kreyol Essence. Her agri-business sources all of its organic ingredients from Haiti to make beauty products for both men and women. However, Yve is not content to simply turn a profit, her company aims to have a social and environmental impact too. Yve believes that her business should be socially responsible and actively seek to employ Haitian women, the backbone of the Haitian family and economy. In hiring farmers to plant castor seeds, Kreyol Essence also does its part to prevent soil erosion in Haiti. Yve is one of many young Haitian-American entrepreneurs who marries social purpose with profit margins, for the benefit of Haiti’s economic development.

Pierre Latouche, a member of the Haitian diaspora, recently opened an operation in Haiti where he packages and sells perfumes for the Haitian market. Pierre’s company, UB Fragrances, currently employs 35 Haitians at the Caracol Industrial Park, and plans to increase the work force to over 100 this year. When asked why he expanded to Haiti, Pierre replied: “I wanted to give something back to the country where I was born, and I have no regrets.” This is the kind of inspiring business venture that benefits both the entrepreneur and local community, as it creates jobs and opens new markets.

Finally, let me tell you about Nedgine Paul, a young Haitian-American woman from Connecticut. Nedgine was born in Haiti and moved with her family to the United States at a young age. She worked hard and graduated with degrees from Harvard and Yale, but she had a calling to go back to her Haitian roots. A few years ago, she decided to move back to Haiti where nearly half the population is under the age of 15. Realizing that many children were not receiving a quality education, Nedgine took her teaching experience from charter schools in the United States and founded Teach for Haiti, a program modeled after Teach for America. The organization places talented young Haitian professionals into the classroom to teach Haitian children. Nedgine’s efforts helped her become recognized as one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30”. More importantly, her program has already provided a great education to hundreds of students.

These social entrepreneurs are nation-builders who are creating demand for local products while providing the next generation with the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the global economy. The U.S. government has many programs to support these efforts and spur investment in Haiti from abroad. Many of these programs target several diaspora groups including Haitians.

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) are eager to support businesses interested in investing in the Caribbean. OPIC has already provided investors in Haiti with over $90 million for financing, loan guarantees, and political risk insurance over the past five years, and will continue to help American businesses expand into emerging markets, contributing to jobs and growth opportunities. USTDA facilitates the participation of U.S. businesses in the planning and execution of priority development projects, and in doing so, spurs economic growth in the Caribbean’s emerging economies. USTDA funds project planning activities, pilot projects, and reverse trade missions. In Haiti, the Embassy is sponsoring representatives from ten Haitian agri-businesses on a two-week trip to Miami and Washington. There, they will learn the procedures needed to export their products from Haiti and sell them on supermarkets across the East coast.

For those interested in partnering with USAID, there are opportunities for diaspora investment to contribute particularly to Haiti’s economic growth, especially in the areas of agriculture, garment, and construction. The Leveraging Effective Application of Direct Investments (LEAD) project improves access to investment capital for Haitian businesses and strengthens their business skills. Recently, LEAD completed a call for proposals as part of their Diaspora Challenge initiative. The initiative took proposals from diaspora partners to collect ideas on managing a $100,000 program to address Haiti’s development challenges through private capital. In the past LEAD has also provided grants to Haitian-Americans. Almost a third of LEAD supported small and medium sized business are diaspora owned and have a combined value of $3.4 million dollars. Through these businesses 700 jobs have been created providing agricultural, alternative energy, and recycling products and services. One LEAD grant helped entrepreneur Edouard Carrié expand his recycling business, which simultaneously helps to keep the streets, canals, and vacant lots of Port-au-Prince clean.

USAID also recently started the new HOME program which works with Haitian financial institutions to create financial products for middle and low-income housing owners. Through HOME we are engaging the diaspora to mobilize private capital for affordable housing developments. In conversations with the Haitian private sector, many entrepreneurs believe that housing presents one of the best low risk high reward investment for Haitian-Americans.

Many of our Embassies offer direct line webinars which connect Ambassadors to American investors. Recently our Embassy in Haiti completed a webinar investment series connecting six Haitian-American business associations with Haitian institutions including the Center for Facilitation of Investments and ProFin, a dynamic Haitian investment firm that leverages capital from the Haitian-American community to invest in infrastructure projects. These webinars provide a modern and real time opportunity for diaspora communities to engage with American embassies in their country of origin.

The U.S. government actively seeks the participation of the Haitian Diaspora as investors and volunteers. Nearly fifty Haitian-Americans are already employed at USAID’s implementing partners, or working with Haitian ministries to build capacity. We would like to see more Haitian-American owned businesses bid on USAID and other U.S. government contracts too. I urge bidders to visit www.grants.gov for more information. I know this is not a simple process, but you can’t get the contracts if you don’t try.

In conclusion, the same innovation and work ethic that drew many of us and our parents to America can be leveraged to find new solutions to old development challenges in the Caribbean. We must harness the talent and ambition of this multi-cultural mosaic to support economic development beyond our borders. Investment in many countries is a risk, but we believe that diaspora communities have the cultural understanding and expertise and knowledge to be successful. Let us foster our collective imagination while mustering our shared tenacity to create economic opportunity and growth abroad.

I know Haiti is going through a difficult time right now, but I am optimistic about Haiti’s long-term future. There are many opportunities that need support and assistance. There are some risks, but risk is a part of investment – and inherent part. I hope you share my optimism.