CARACOL, Haiti -- It’s precisely the kind of development that just about everyone has been saying Haiti needs: foreign governments pooling dollars to build housing, create jobs and foster hope.
But a $300 million investment to help create tens of thousands of textile jobs in this rural northern village has reignited debate over whether banking on Haiti’s past as a garment-assembly capital will bring the kind of social and economic development needed to lift the country out of abject poverty. Some argue the funds are better invested in agricultural projects to feed the country and boost farmers.
The debate illustrates the challenges facing Haiti where natural disasters, political turmoil and weak institutions have left few options.
It also reflects the challenges of President Michel Martelly’s year-old administration, which has adopted the slogan, “Haiti is open for business” but has yet to address the fundamental issues needed to attract investors.
“Nations traditionally cannot thrive on a single industry,” said Mark D’Sa, senior advisor for Haiti at the U.S. State Department, and a former senior director for a major U.S. retailer. “It can be a starting point, but ultimately there needs to be a diverse set of services. We know from the experiences of countries around the world, as well as from our own in regions of the U.S., that the apparel industry can be a good economic catalyst.”
Georges Sassine, head of the Haitian government’s commission to take advantage of U.S. Congress-approved trade preferences benefiting Haiti’s struggling garment industry, agrees.
“We never said the assembly sector was the way to success,” he said. “We only said that by having approximately 100,000 people working, it will start to create new economic impulses and give time for other sectors to come into play.”
Still, critics point out that even at its height of 100,000 jobs in the 1980s, Haiti’s garment industry failed to be an economic catalyst.
Today, they not only question the revived development plan but whether the Caracol Industrial Park being built in northern Haiti can even be replicated elsewhere. They argue the international community would be better off pouring its aid dollars into modernizing Haiti’s agriculture sector, which has been hampered by everything from soil erosion to a lack of property titles and modern equipment to outdated laws.
Meanwhile, even those desperate for a livelihood question the opportunities for upward mobility in an industry that pays minimum wage.
“Haiti used to be self-sufficient in rice production; it used to be self-sufficient in most of the cereals, the food that it consumed,” said Alex Dupuy, a sociologist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, who has written about the failures of the Haitian assembly industry.
“Very few of the dollars that are invested in Haiti in these assembly industries are going to remain in Haiti,” he said. “And since the assembly industry is the only game in town, and there is nothing else being planned around it to grow the economy, it’s not going to have any long-lasting effect on the growth of the economy.”
‘THE SAME WORDS’
Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, said he isn’t sure if returning to Haiti’s past will provide a solution for the future.