Haiti economy shows signs of life after earthquake

Across Port-au-Prince, indicators of a renascent economy after the Haiti earthquake are unmistakable: bustling street markets, reopened clothing shops, and long lines at cellphone providers, remittance-receiving agencies, and banks.

Jorge Silva/Reuters
A woman sits in front a people lining up in a bank in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday.

Haitians are buying nails to make initial repairs, searching out “tri-tri” – a powder of tiny dried fish used to season rice – and even getting haircuts: all of which means that, slowly, the economy is showing signs of life after being knocked out by the Jan. 12 earthquake.

“Business is coming back little by little, despite the damage in the neighborhood, I guess because we Haitians like to keep our hair cut,” says Savien Franciscain, who is running both chairs at the tiny barber shop he operates in Port-au-Prince’s heavily damaged center. “I reopened Sunday, and it’s been pretty good ever since.”

Across the capital, the indicators of a renascent economy are unmistakable: bustling street markets, reopened clothing shops, and lots of long lines – especially at cellphone providers, as customers seek to replace lost or damaged phones, and at remittance-receiving agencies and banks. After the temblor shut down the central bank and choked off the banking system, Haitians found themselves cash-starved.

Plans are in the works among Haitian government and international monetary officials and donor countries to get money circulating through the economy again. The country needs an infusion of cash to get moving, economists say, while the Haitian government is contemplating a stimulus program to jumpstart private-sector activity.

“In the short term, we have to get small business going again, and that means getting money in people’s hands so they buy what the small businesses offer,” says Kisner Pharel, a Harvard-trained Haitian economist. He says Haiti’s central bank has done a good job of getting back on its feet, but what scares him are the country’s banks.

“After this disaster, the massive destruction we’ve had, there are going to be a lot of what…Americans would call toxic assets,” Mr. Pharel says. “The banks are going to be dealing with that while we need them to be lending and getting things moving again.”

Open for business, but short on cash

Even Haiti’s smallest merchants understand the importance of getting money in people’s hands. Yiolene Aristyl operates a tiny vegetable and small-groceries “market” – actually a plot no larger than a square yard – on a busy thoroughfare leading into central Port-au-Prince.

“People don’t have a lot of cash to buy things, and what they do have they are extra-careful with because they fear running out,” she says, selling a couple of onions and some tri-tri to a picky shopper. Another problem is inflation. “Now I have to pay [$10] for what cost me [$2] before the event.” (The “event” is how many Haitians choose to call the 7.3-magnitude earthquake that devastated the country).

Jean-Claude Berjelain is buying a one-pound sack of nails at a small hardware store in the capital’s Javenat neighborhood, but he thinks the aftershocks that occasionally shake Port-au-Prince will discourage major repair and rebuilding for a while yet. “I’m going to nail down some metal sheets where part of my roof fell in, but nothing more than that,” he says. “The earth keeps moving, moving.”

But he says there is also an economic problem. “People just don’t have any money,” he says. “How can you expect things to get moving again if people have nothing to spend?”

Will foreign money help?

At the city’s only surviving Domino’s Pizza restaurant – there were three before the quake – owner Ronald Jaar says he figures he’ll have to depend on the thousands of doctors, relief workers, and other foreigners who have flooded into the city to keep afloat.

“Our economy was already bad, but this means unemployment will be much higher,”says Mr. Jaar, who also owned the two destroyed Domino’s – and had to let those employees go. “That’s 35 jobs lost,” he says.

Still, Jaar, a US-trained engineer, says he believes Haiti has the option to “turn this disaster into our chance. All the money that’s going to be pouring in,” he adds, “if it’s well managed, can create a lot of jobs and, maybe even more important, a lot of new entrepreneurs with a new way of thinking.’

This theme of “opportunity out of the rubble” is gaining ground with some Haitians, and among foreign officials and in international business circles as well.

This week the international business and economic elite were to discuss Haiti investment opportunities at Davos, Switzerland – with Haiti advocate Bill Clinton in attendance. One idea is to create investment zones and lower business-creation hurdles to give what had been Haiti’s nascent garment industry a second beginning.

Outside Port-au-Prince?

Another idea is to focus economic-development efforts outside of a heavily-congested Port-au-Prince, so that at least some of the hundreds of thousands of the city’ residents who fled after the quake don’t feel the economic need to return.

“We have an opportunity now to re-imagine this country in a way that could have never been accomplished politically,” says economist Pharel.
Everyone agrees that Port-au-Prince was too crowded, he says, but those who have left will only stay where they are if the country’s regions have the same or better amenities – jobs, schools, an airport – as the capital.

Pharel says Haiti’s recent history of deep political divisions would suggest that a “unity of vision” won’t be easy. But he says the quake presents Haitians with an opportunity to benefit from the world’s focus and largesse – something that he says everyone knows won’t last forever. With an international donors’ conference for Haiti set for March in New York, he says Haitians have a little over a month to “come together and come up with a vision and a strategy” for their future.

“We have to treat this as something like our 9/11,” Pharel says. “This has to shock us into doing things very differently.”

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