US Chamber

Unconventional Philanthropy in Haiti

What keeps Haiti in the minds and hearts of philanthropists?

By Gerald McSwiggan and Taryn Bird

What is it about Haiti that keeps philanthropists and investors alike coming back? 

One year after the devastating earthquake, Haiti still captivates the interest of many in the United States. Outside of Hurricane Katrina, this is rare for disasters. 

An Unconventional Disaster Response

The typical disaster giving cycle lasts a few months, if that long. That window of time is even smaller when another disaster happens shortly afterward. For example, Nashville was hit by extreme flooding in May 2010, but was quickly overshadowed by the Gulf oil spill. The flooding, one of the worst disasters in recent memory, was largely overlooked by donors.

Haiti is a different story. Even with a major earthquake in Chile happening a little over a month later, people remained interested in Haiti’s ability to rebound from the terrible disaster. Remember, these disasters occurred at a time when the U.S. economy was extremely unstable and companies were slashing philanthropic budgets left and right. So why the unconventional continued interest in Haiti?  

Though Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, donors and investors still see reasons to pay attention. Maybe it’s the close proximity to the United States – neighbor helping neighbor. Maybe it’s human nature to not be able to look the other way in the face of a still-unfolding tragedy. Maybe it’s the spirit of hope and resiliency so noticeable on the faces of the Haitians who appear in our news outlets.

And maybe the allure of better things to come has us wanting a seat at the table.

The Nexus of CSR and Core Business Investment

While short-term philanthropic solutions were appropriate in the immediate months following the earthquake – and then again to relieve the cholera epidemic – the game-changers in Haiti’s future are jobs and private-sector investment. Corporate citizenship and CSR professionals for years have attempted to find the perfect linkage between giving and investing, business and philanthropy. 

An immense amount of human capital exists in Haiti – we’ve experienced it when we toured IDP (internally displaced persons) camps and spoke to residents and authorities about what they viewed as “up next” for their country. If this human capital fused with private-sector tools and investment, an untapped market potential and thousands of new jobs in Port-au-Prince could be unleashed, simultaneously offering SMEs and large businesses alike the opportunity to flourish. 

Now, this all sounds idealistic. We know the challenges are immense and working in-country is rather difficult. But consider this story as an indicator of Haiti’s potential: CHOOSE HAITI has employed 1,400 people through the production and sale of a bracelet made in Haiti, by displaced Haitians living in tent camps. The bracelet is 100% recycled, using newspaper and water bottles donated by the U.S. consumer and then collected from the streets of Port-au-Prince. Bracelets are sold for $10 at retailers ranging from Forever 21 to Lady Foot Locker.

Good Will, Good Markets?

The second year after the earthquake will be pivotal. Will people continue to invest in Haiti’s future, or will good will and human interest dry up?

It is obvious many things need to change in Haiti before a true economic tipping point can occur. Better infrastructure, more trust in government and an educated workforce to name a few. 

But a seed has been planted. We want to build on what’s right in Haiti. We hope NGOs, companies and government officials ban together to build a new Haiti.

At the Haiti One Year Later forum at the Chamber yesterday, Michael Webster from The Dow Chemical Company emphasized the untapped opportunity for Haiti’s marketplace to become globally differentiated through a focus on green/recycled products. What other great ideas are out there?

While we can’t get back the 250,000 souls lost in the terrible earthquake, maybe their deaths will not be in vain. Maybe Haiti will one day be the place about which people say, “We can’t afford not to invest there.”

Additional Resources

About Gerald McSwiggan and Taryn Bird

McSwiggan is the head of the U.S. Chamber BCLC Disaster Assistance and Recovery Program. Bird is the head of the Global Corporate Citizenship Program.

Talkback Readers: Why do you think there has been such an interest in Haiti’s recovery efforts? Can sustainable business enterprises help the country thrive in the coming year(s)? Share your thoughts on Talkback!

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