Haiti's Diaspora Goes to Washington: Leveraging the Diaspora's Political & Economic Power for the Good of the Homeland

Kenneth H. Merten
Special Coordinator for Haiti and Deputy Assistant Secretary 
Howard University
Washington, DC
September 30, 2016

Thank you for giving me the honor to speak with you today. I am particularly grateful the State Department is co-hosting today's Millennials Luncheon with the National Alliance for the Advancement of Haitian Professionals.

I would like to especially thank the efforts of NAAHP President Serge Renaud, and his colleagues Cleve Mesidor, Esther Dupervil, and Marie Texas for making this wonderful event possible. I am honored to be part of an event with such distinguished participants as Ambassador Altidor, Karl Racine, Danielle St Lot, former Ambassador Raymond Joseph, and many more.

First, before I move to my prepared remarks……

Next Sunday, Haiti and Haitians have an opportunity to get their country back on track. The October 9 elections are crucial for Haiti to achieve political stability. The U.S. supports the process, not a candidate. We will work with whoever the Haitian people choose. I would hope it is obvious that not every candidate can be a winner. If anyone feels disadvantaged we believe they should follow the rules of the contestation process and provide proof, not simple assertions, that they were disadvantaged. I also want to be clear. The U.S. government supports these elections and hopes they will be fair, transparent and credible. Thus far, the signs have been good.

Second, I know many of you are concerned about the change in Department of Homeland ecurity policy towards irregular Haitian migrants. This policy now brings Haiti into line with almost all other countries in terms of the way its irregular migrants are treated. Regardless of your views on this, I hope we can all agree that our real goal should be to work in partnership with Haiti and Haitians to ensure there’s economic opportunity in Haiti so that Haiti can be a place where the country’s citizens want to stay, not leave.

As some of you know, my attachment to Haiti goes back almost thirty years, to a day in early 1988 when I first set foot on Haitian soil. I had just joined the U.S. Foreign Service, and Haiti was my first overseas assignment.

I knew virtually nothing about Haiti when I arrived. I had read a bit, but I really had no feel for it. I loved it immediately, from that first blast of warm, wonderful Haitian air I got going down the stairs from that Eastern Airlines flight. What I did not know as I stepped off the plane was that Haiti would have a deep and profound effect on me, something that would follow me throughout my career.

The Haitian people impressed me with their warmth, their sense of humor and their resilience. Then there was the Haitian culture itself, particularly the food and music – pikliz, griot de porc, comparettes, konpa, not to mention Haiti’s world-beating art. I learned Creole, a language I love, largely on my own. I only wish I could speak it better. Mezami….. Trips outside Port-au-Prince brought new scenes to me and had a lasting effect on a young man born in St Louis – e pa St. Louis du Sud, no — St Louis, Missouri.

I went on to serve two more tours in Haiti, the last one as Ambassador. Affinity with the Haitian people and a wish to continue accompanying Haiti on its journey toward a being a more prosperous country that fully charts its own course were what motivated me to accept the opportunity to work with Haiti again, this time in Washington as the Haiti Special Coordinator. I’m proud of my association with Haiti. I’m proud of my Haitian friends. And I’m proud to be here with you today.

But on to what we’re here to talk about….today’s lunch focuses on millennials of the Haitian diaspora. One of the greatest engines for economic development in Haiti is the Haitian diaspora. In today’s globalized world, diaspora have an enormous role as bridges to their countries of heritage by knowing the country, its people and culture, and the immense potential of possibilities there.

For the millennial generation of Haitians in the audience who wish to contribute to their country of heritage, let me say that I am glad you are here. I understand your desire to give back to Haiti as you also contribute to the economy of the United States through your education, resourcefulness, and entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is one of the great qualities immigrants have historically brought to these shores. A few years ago a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that 41% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and the children of immigrants. The study concluded that immigrant-founded Fortune 500 companies employ 3.6 million workers worldwide. And that is just the first generation of immigrants. The revenues generated by Fortune 500 companies founded by immigrants and the children of immigrants is greater than the GDP of every country in the world outside the United States, except China and Japan.

The United States is indeed the Land of Opportunity. And when you add to our Land of Opportunity immigrants who had only limited, or possibly no opportunity, before they arrived, it creates a potent fusion of energy and possibility that repeatedly spells success, and success in every field.

You may ask yourselves, Mwa menm, kisa m’ ka fe pou Ayiti? What can I do for Haiti.

Examples are Haitians who started a successful business in the United States, and then returned to Haiti to expand their business there. Other Haitians living in the United States who gave back to Haiti by creating effective non-profit organizations that work on the ground to better the lives of Haitians.

Their involvement and their investment continue to spread hope and open doors to this day.

Kisa m’ ka fe pou Ayiti?

One person’s response involved pure impulse.

Not long after the earthquake in Haiti, in the State Department, Secretary Clinton organized a town hall meeting for all employees. Much of the discussion involved the Department’s initial efforts to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti. During the question and answer session that followed the Secretary’s address, Foreign Service Officer Jean Pierre-Louis walked up to the microphone and informed the Secretary and all others in the room that he was a Haitian-American diplomat who understood Haiti’s history and culture. He then volunteered on the spot to return to Haiti and help with the response.

Jean must have made an impression on the Secretary, because several days later he was on a plane heading for Haiti where he worked on the earthquake response with me for six weeks. I am personally grateful to him. After that, he spent the next two years in Haiti as a senior program manager working with business investment, micro-finance, building cholera treatment facilities and other health-related facilities.

I believe Mr. Pierre-Louis is in the audience today. Jean, please stand up and accept the thanks of everyone in this hall.

Kisa m’ ka fe pou Ayiti? This is a question we also ask ourselves in the State Department.

The U.S. government is very much engaged in Haiti through foreign assistance as well as cultural exchanges. In 2010, the government awarded a Humphrey Fellowship to William Cinea to study natural resources management at Cornell University. After a year of study at Cornell, he returned to Haiti determined to make a difference. He became one of the founders of Haiti Verte and the Cayes Botanic Gardens with the goal of attracting tourists and developing the country’s horticulture. As a result of his vision, his work, and the knowledge he gained at Cornell, Haiti’s Ministry of the Environment honored Mr. Cinea with the Environmentalist of the Year Award for his efforts at making his homeland more healthy and beautiful.

Secretary Kerry said, “We’ve gone from an era where power lived almost exclusively in old establishment hierarchies to an era where power lives in networks.” And to this I would argue that few networks exist that are as strong as diaspora networks.

Kisa m’ ka fe pou Ayiti?

I am inspired by the story of Marie Durané, whose parents came to the United States from Haiti. Marie attended Loyola University in Baltimore before going on to American University Washington College of Law, where she received her law degree in 2016. As a law student, Marie’s desire to give back to Haiti led her to apply for the Haitian government’s prestigious Haiti’s Future Leaders Fellowship. This program is highly selective and the competition quite tough. Yet, Marie was selected and was soon packing her bags. In Haiti she spent two months as a legal intern in the Prime Minister’s Office where she worked for the Legal Advisor.

This story is shows how one person, using her talent, education, and determination, can make a contribution to Haiti. The experience, helpful to Haiti, also enriched Marie’s life. She returned to the United States with a better appreciation for Haiti and its government, and added a chapter to her life that will be with her always.

Kisa m’ ka fe pou Ayiti?

In my view, one of the most profound and long-lasting contributions anyone can make to Haiti is in the creation of jobs and economic opportunity. When you create jobs you change lives. You give people security, education, health, hope, and, above all, the power to shape their own destiny.

To business people in the audience, I would ask that you give serious consideration to investing in Haiti. Yes, there are risks, there always are in any business venture.

Kisa m’ ka fe pou Ayiti?

Five years ago a Haitian by the name of Cyrill Turnier was asking himself the same question as he sat in a café in Port-au-Prince with his Dutch friend Peter de Gier. Cyrill, who is a permanent resident of the United States, had graduated from Babson College with a major in entrepreneurship. At 23-years-old, he returned to Haiti looking for possible business opportunities. Just as he and Peter de Gier were asking themselves kisa nou ka fe pou Ayiti, a man working at a garage across the street came out with a bucket of used motor oil which he poured into the gutter. As they watched him in disbelief, the light bulb of inspiration flashed. Surely there is a better way to dispose of motor oil, and surely the motor oil, used as it is, has some value. Cyrill and Peter decided to explore these questions, and soon launched an oil recycling business. They pooled their money together and bought a used truck, an oil tank, and a pump. They hired nine employs and were soon making the rounds of Port-au-Prince garages collecting used oil. They then shipped this oil to the U.S. were it was purchased for use in the manufacture of plastics. They also received a grant from USAID’s LEAD program, which allowed them to purchase a new truck and expand operations.

Their entrepreneurship had three impacts: it created jobs, improved the environment, and made a modest profit.

Through continued research, travel, and collaboration Cyrille and Peter designed a process to convert used motor oil into diesel fuel, a prototype they plan to ship back to Haiti and convert used motor oil into diesel fuel. With additional investment, they estimate that their company will generate 50 direct jobs and lead to the creation of over 400 indirect jobs. We wish them the best as they embark on this venture.

Let me end by saying that a wide spectrum of opportunities present themselves to anyone who wishes to engage in Haiti. This spectrum ranges from volunteer work to engagement with companies and organizations already operating on the ground, to direct investment. What it requires, the key element in all of this, is determination. Only after you have that can you let your education, your talents and your skills come into play. Only after you have personal will can you truly give back to Ayiti Chèrie.

Kisa m’ ka fe pou Ayiti?

Zanmi’ m’yo - Se pou ou mem deside – My friends, it is for you to decide.

Viv Ayiti e vive la cooperation Haitiano-Américaine.