Bill Clinton's latest tough sell: Haiti

The former president, who was recently named UN Special Envoy to Haiti, plans to go there in October on a 'major trade mission.'

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
Former president Bill Clinton, who was recently named UN Special Envoy to Haiti, stands with Haitian workers as he poses for a photograph in a recycling factory known as "Sant Triyaj Fatra Kafoufey" in Port-au-Prince July 7.

Bill Clinton’s recent appointment as United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti has been overshadowed by his other news-grabbing deeds of late. But even for someone who can get journalists out of jail in North Korea and lower the cost of AIDS drugs worldwide, Mr. Clinton’s promises for his new UN mission are extraordinary.

Clinton described his new job last week before the Haitian Diaspora Unity Congress in Miami. It was a gathering of more than 300 Haitian professionals and aid workers to talk about how to consolidate efforts to help their homeland.

Clinton opened his remarks with ironic modesty, telling the room that his job is to coordinate the efforts of the UN agencies in Haiti, “and do a few other things, too.” Those things, he expounded, include improving disaster prevention and recovery, seeking investors and donors, hectoring donors to follow through on pledges, and presenting “the best possible image of Haiti to the rest of the world.”

The last point got the most applause. Ridding Haiti of its "failed state" label is an essential part of Clinton’s job, and possibly the most challenging. Clinton said he lobbied hard, and successfully, to get the State Department to change it’s travel advisory on Haiti last month. But alterations were in the details. Haiti and Colombia remain the only countries in the Americas with travel warnings on the department’s website.

Haiti will be a tough sell, but many believe Clinton is that convincing.

Leslie Voltaire is the Haitian government’s envoy to the UN. His job is to synthesize the government’s major project plans on everything from education to urban planning, and present them to Clinton “so he can be a salesman for us with the donors and with the international private sector.”

Mr. Voltaire was impressed by a meeting of business leaders and economists that Clinton recently invited him to in New York. “I think that [Clinton] can channel good will toward Haiti, and he was insisting that we have to go and look for investors in Europe, in Mexico, in Canada, to interest them [in Haiti],” he said.

Clinton plans to go to Haiti in October on a “major trade mission.” Between now and then, he'll identify specific opportunities in economic development. He already has some ideas about exporting mangos, replacing charcoal (a major cause of deforestation) with briquettes of recycled trash, producing cane ethanol, and using wind and solar energy.

Clinton already has a team of committed supporters of his Haiti mission, including experts from India, Ireland, the Dominican Republic, and the US. The latest addition required no convincing that Haiti is a worthy cause. On Tuesday, Clinton appointed Harvard professor and health care pioneer Dr. Paul Farmer as his deputy.

Both Dr. Farmer and Clinton have been going to Haiti for decades and have seen its economy and reputation decline. But Clinton is hopeful.

Though as poor as ever, Haiti is enjoying a period of stability, with low crime and a democratically elected government who believes the US administration to be a friend.

“It is my opinion,” he told the diaspora conference, “that this is by far the best chance that Haiti has had, in the 35 years that I have been acquainted with it, to slip the bonds of the past.”

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