Do you know where Haitian women go to get fancy lingerie? Usually street vendors, though sometimes it’s brought back in suitcases after trips to the United States and Europe (which is, oddly enough, where the street vendors purchase it). Women who want nice underwear wade through stacks of bras and panties on stands on the side of the road, next to the guy selling car batteries or the kid selling chewing gum. Or they stuff suitcases en route from Miami with enough options to fill a boutique shop. Perhaps the inconveniences of Haitian women who want to dress nice ranks towards the bottom of most people’s purviews, somewhere next to Yoga Mats for Haiti. At the same time, addressing the underserved market for women’s lingerie in Haiti is as important as any development efforts currently taking place in the country.
Last week the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) hosted its second post-earthquake Invest in Haiti Forum, with the tagline “Haiti: Cleared to Invest.” The two-day conference drew over 1200 attendants, with many more who had registered but were unable to attend the fully-packed space. Dozens of high-profile personalities came to the event, most notably Bill Clinton and Donna Karen. While it’s difficult to gauge the immediate effects of such a conference or what concrete plans have been laid for the future, the message of a way forward made itself clear: investment.
Everyone there had an idea, and everyone was looking for investors. Really, there was very little room for handouts, which was a good thing. Haitians are weary of aid, but immediately acknowledge the perk of having hundreds of NGOs swimming within the country: jobs. That alone should indicate that investment opportunities are more welcome than anything free.
Therein lies a bit of a conundrum. It’s difficult to imagine most investment opportunities as something available to the poorest of Haitians. For example, Marriott hotels announced days before the Forum it would construct a $45 million hotel in Port-au-Prince, providing hundreds of jobs. Yet, given that this hotel is to be built in the country’s already overcrowded capital, it’s safe to bet that it will at least be within throwing distance if not smack in the middle of squalor, a tent city, or any other indication of low-income livelihoods. A casual observer would shake his or her head and come up with this (valid) question:
why spend $45 million on a hotel where most Haitians cant afford to stay and the money from which could eradicate any number of pre-existing problems in Haiti?
Indeed this is a poignant question, one fraught with a 2-dimensional perspective of Haiti and the complexities therein. The simple answer as to why Haiti needs a Marriot is because why wouldn’t it?
Often times we forget Haiti is smack in the middle of the Caribbean, giving it the same resources and benefits as any other island: tropical weather, exotic food, relaxing beaches, and unlimited coconuts and sugar cane available everywhere you go. The fact is, Haiti can be and used to be a popular tourist destination. Long before the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana became one of the Caribbean’s top vacation destinations, tourists flocked to Haiti by the hundreds.
The other problem with this question (fictitious though it is in execution, yet real in the ideologies of many) is that it presumes that Haitians are poor by and large. While visible poverty in the country cannot be ignored, Haitians are also as rich and extravagant as any other nationality you may come across. In my time in Haiti I’ve seen the country’s wealthiest host a yacht party with a barge decked out as a VIP lounge, I’ve seen a resort off the mainland accessible only by speedboat, and i’ve seen art for sale that tops most people’s salaries. Perhaps more tellingly, I’ve seen how widespread the middle class is. Organic sharp cheddar cheese sells just as well in Port-au-Prince as it does in northwest Washington, D.C. So, indeed I imagine there are a good number of Haitians who wouldn’t mind staying at a Marriott to get away from the hustle and bustle of the day.
The overall issue with the question, though, is that it sits in front a backdrop of “aid vs. investment” with aid edging out on top as the more needed factor. Rather than $45 million for a hotel, the money should be, needs to be, spent on providing clean water, disseminating vaccines, purchasing school supplies, and so forth. These are all worthwhile and absolutely necessary endeavors, and represent core areas (health and education) that are prerequisites for a society to move forward. Yet, if the more than 3,000 NGOs already in Haiti cannot successfully address these concerns, then another $45 million won’t.
Haitians want jobs and opportunities. This much is clear. Investing in underserved areas is one way to provide these jobs. While trickle down economics has its limits, the basic math of more jobs = stronger economy remains constant. What remains just as clear, as you drive along the streets of Port-au-Prince, is that women’s lingerie is another underserved market in Haiti. And while it may seem frivolous to those of us on the outside who focus on the immediacey of Haiti’s needs, the Haitians who can afford it are willing to pay premium prices, as is any middle-class. What good, then, does it do for development to NOT address that market? Build a Marriott today, a Victoria’s Secret tomorrow, and watch what Haitians will build next for themselves.