Weeks before the devastating earthquake struck Haiti in early 2010, I had the opportunity to visit the country with a team of Abbott scientists and engineers to explore ways that we, as a health care company, could lend our expertise to advance the work of longstanding nonprofit health care leader Partners In Health (PIH). Amidst Haiti’s many challenges and ingrained poverty, I saw firsthand the positive impact of linking health interventions with economic development in Haiti’s Central Plateau region. PIH and its sister farming organization, Zanmi Agrikol, were helping to address critical health and nutrition needs, while at the same time delivering something equally important: an economic cluster of activity that provides jobs and training–the building blocks for a better future.
Of course, with the earthquake and its aftermath, the focus for many Haitians shifted away from building their future, to just surviving to see tomorrow. Two years later, significant challenges remain. Half the rubble in Port-au-Prince still needs to be removed. A million people have left the camps, but a half million remain in tents. Cholera continues to be an issue, and access to clean water, sanitation, and health care is still limited.
Traditional aid, in the form of donations from governments, companies, and individuals, has saved countless lives and continues to play an important role in addressing these issues in Port-au-Prince, and across the country. Like many other donors, Abbott is committed to continuing this aid to address acute needs.
However, on a return trip to Haiti earlier this year, the central importance of jobs was apparent once again. I heard from many Haitians in the capital that they are eager to move beyond handouts–they want opportunities to work, so they can play an active role in rebuilding their lives and their communities.
To help the Haitian people turn the corner to a better future, the international community first has to look beyond donations and make economic development a key focus for rebuilding Haiti.
As the main catalyst for jobs and economic activity, the business sector has a critically important role to play in this effort. We’re beginning to see encouraging signs that companies are finding ways to advance their core business by establishing operations or pursuing marketing opportunities in Haiti.
Outdoor outfitter Timberland epitomizes this shift. Building on a longstanding philanthropic presence in Haiti focused on reforestation, last year the company opened a factory in the country to manufacture shoes, hiring and training local staff.
A Korean clothing supplier for many big-box stores, Sae-A, is soon to become Haiti’s largest private employer when it opens a new factory employing 20,000 Haitians. Longer term, they plan to knit textiles using home-grown cotton and other materials, extending the economic benefit to local farms.
Years ago, thriving farms were a source of strength and pride in Haiti, but recent years have seen a decline in the agriculture sector. More than 50% of the country’s food comes from overseas today, compared to 20% a few decades ago.
Building on Haiti’s longstanding farming tradition, international experts see tremendous opportunity to reverse this trend, with a revitalized agriculture sector playing a key role in Haiti’s future.
Many organizations and companies are working to catalyze these opportunities. The nonprofit social investment fund Root Capital is providing farmers with loans, market connections, and technical training in financing and crop management, helping small-scale farmers to sustainably increase yields for coffee, mangoes, and other crops.
Experts from across Abbott are working with PIH to build a food production facility in Corporant that will source peanuts and other crops from more than 200 local farmers, and train workers to handle all aspects of production. Once the facility opens, we anticipate that a significant increase in demand for peanuts also will help to expand opportunities for farmers to hire more workers and increase their crop yields in the years ahead.
One common factor in all of these examples is the importance of partnership to empower the people of Haiti. The Sae-A factory is located on land donated by the Haitian government, and is part of a broader development project funded by the U.S. government and the Inter-American Development Bank. Root Capital’s work in Haiti is supported in part by the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. Our work with PIH combines the expertise and resources of a leading nonprofit and a global health care company.
Through collaboration among the public, private, and civil sectors, jobs and economic opportunity can be created, which will help to alleviate poverty and its many negative impacts on health, nutrition, and other social issues. With Port-au-Prince just beginning to dig out from the earthquake, these lessons from Haiti’s heartland can help the capital, and the broader country, to turn the corner from the earthquake to a brighter future ahead.