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Opinion

A business solution to Haiti's poverty

Foreign aid was vital after the Jan. 12 earthquake. But long-term prosperity depends on business development.

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The challenge, Mr. Barrau says, "is to build a safety net for rural people whose certificate of deposit is their cow, whose demand deposit is their goat, whose cash is a chicken."

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Mathias Pierre started GaMa, a computer hardware business. "I could have gone to America, but I stayed and earned my engineering degree," he says. When riots in 2008 engulfed the capital, his store was destroyed. "I realized then, I had a nice car, a fine home; the people didn't know that I was one of them," he recalls.

Mr. Pierre started training programs for disadvantaged youth. He wrote a biography, which sold out in months. When the earthquake hit, he loaded up a truck with computer supplies and went to the president's temporary headquarters. The government was back online in hours – days before the nongovernmental organizations arrived.

Gladys Coupet, Citibank's chief country officer, was injured in the collapse of her building during the earthquake. She returned to work heading up key public-private sector initiatives.

"Our buildings were designed for hurricanes, heavy and inflexible; not earthquakes where we need structures that are light and agile," she says. "It is a metaphor for our economy in the throes of globalization."

The need for a culture of innovation

Much of the information that comes out of Haiti is from celebrities, US-based news crews, and the PR firms hired by donor organizations. One rarely hears the Haitian voice, and almost never that of the Haitian private sector. Even though humanitarian aid helped to lift the country out of crisis, it will never create prosperity for the average person.

Mr. Boisson, the banker, agrees. "We need a national vision of investment-led growth and shared prosperity," he says. This means creating a culture of innovation: finding attractive export market segments to serve with unique products, building new distribution systems, lowering energy costs, and providing skills to Haitian citizens who will be compensated for the high value they create.

During my visit, I saw the value that a large employer can provide to Haiti; how entrepreneurs can meet the changing needs of working Haitian families; that home-grown role models exist. I also saw reservoirs of deep introspection and even compassion inside Haiti's private sector. It remains for those of us outside Haiti to find these men and women and connect them to global networks of productivity and investment.

Kurt Jean-Charles is the founder of Solutions S.A., which creates mobile software applications for the over 1 million cellphone subscribers in Haiti. He evoked the promise of private-led growth when he told me, "Entrepreneurs put aside their comfort to create something new, and in the process, advance society."

Michael Fairbanks is cofounder of SEVEN, a philanthropy run by entrepreneurs. He co-wrote "Plowing the Sea," Harvard Business School Publishing's first book on enterprise solutions to poverty, and edited "In the River They Swim." He advises government and business leaders in Haiti.

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