Above: Haiti Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe
By Alexander Britell
Haiti Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe recently concluded a weeklong trip to the United States that featured meetings with officials from the World Bank, the IDB, the UN, donor countries (including Canada) and visits to northeastern universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a wide-ranging interview, Caribbean Journal talked to Lamothe about his recent trip, the progress of aid talks with Canada and Haiti’s decision to rename Cap-Haitien airport after the late Hugo Chavez.
What were the major takeaways from your US trip?
There were three main takeaways: one is to be able to establish partnerships with some of the major US universities and institutions such as MIT, Harvard and Columbia University. So we are going to have partnerships for development strategies, exchange programmes and we’re going to have scholarships for Haitian students. Second was the participation in the summit organized by [former British PM] Gordon Brown, the World Bank, the IDB and the Secretary of the United Nations to focus on some of the wins the Haitian government had in the education sector, where we increased the participation of primary-school students from 54 percent to 88 percent, which is a major undertaking. Over the last year, And lastly, we were able to meet with all the donor countries in order to have a common approach to development assistance to Haiti, where we agreed to mutual responsibilities to have efficient aid that benefits the Haitian people. And we also met with the Haitian diaspora, inviting them to invest.
In January, Canada announced it would be reviewing its long-term aid strategy to Haiti. When you met with Canadian International Cooperation Minister Julian Fantino in Washington last week, was there any progress or any sign that Canada would resume funding new projects?
Well, [the meeting] was very positive. First of all, the tone of the meeting was very good, and we came away thinking that we have a renewed interest in Mr Fantino’s push for Haiti. And he even said himself that the government is making great progress.
During the MIT visit, Haiti signed an agreement on a pilot project on Creole-language education. Do you see Creole as a major priority in Haiti’s education system?
Well, 100 percent of Haitians speak Creole, so it only makes sense to start pilot projects in order to showcase the difference, especially the comprehension difference between learning in Creole and learning in French. That will only enable the government to better tackle the problem. So what they’re doing is an experiment, a pilot project training 200 teachers in Creole in specific schools with specific technology. They will provide us with the resources, and we will be able to compare. The reading comprehension right now is 60 words per minute in Creole, and 25 for French. So that’s the data we’re looking at.
MIT has specifically been working on Creole language science education. What do you see as the role of science education in Haiti’s development?
Any country that wants to develop must establish a strong education policy, and we’ve been doing a lot to invest in the education of our children. The results are showing, with over 300,000 kids outside of the school system that have returned. We’re building 200 schools, so we’re seeing significant progress that we have to continue.
The government last week announced the formation of a transitional college of the Permanent Electoral Council. Does the government have a timetable to hold elections?
That’s up to the college to decide what they will do. We hope that they’ll do it as soon as possible, when they’re ready.
Haiti has been making a continued tourism push. Was tourism investment something that came up in your talks with the World Bank and other multilaterals?
Well, we’re looking at that. The World Bank also promised to help us with investment into some of the tourism development that we’re doing, so we’re very happy about that, and the IDB as well. So everybody is interested in boosting private investment, and it’s in everybody’s interest. And we have the energy to do it.
You mentioned investment from the Diaspora. What’s the best way to attract investment from Haitians abroad?
To create basic infrastructure for the Diaspora to feel welcome. One thing we have done is the dual national law, so they can feel more at home. Two, we improved the security of the country — if you look at the statistics, Haiti’s violent crime rate is exactly the same as Long Beach, Calif. The kidnapping has gone down, or nearly disappeared. The cholera epidemic has really declined. So we’re creating the basis right now. What we’re doing is some exchange programmes with universities to have Haitian-American students, putting together things that will benefit the diaspora. But at the end of the day, entrepreneurship is about taking risks. And we encourage them to come to Haiti and spend their vacations in Haiti, open small businesses, open larges businesses and to think of Haiti as their primary investment or tourist destination.
When I spoke with Secretary of State for Public Security Reginald Delva earlier this year, he mentioned Haiti’s ultimate goal to increase the size of the Haitian National Police to 15,000 by 2016. Do you have a timetable for additions in the short term?
We’re going to graduate another 1,100 in the next four months. And we’re providing them with supplies, with new uniforms, with equipment. The government is very serious about tackling the security issues, and we want to give them the means to do so.
Last week, you announced that Haiti would be renaming the Cap-Haitien national airport to honour the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. What was the reasoning behind that?
Well, number one, the airport in Cap-Haitien is being financed by Venezuela. Venezuela has been a great benefactor to Haiti. It has been in times of great crisis. Venezuela is the country that has had great relationships with Haiti since the early 1800s, when Alexandre Petion helped Bolivar liberate many of the countries in South America. So the relationship goes way back. So paying a tribute to the fallen president Hugo Chavez is something that we see as a sign of respect for all the contributions that he made for the improvement of the vulnerable and poorest people living in Haiti.
The UN’s Nigel Fisher recently questioned the slogan of “Haiti is open for business,” suggesting it was not yet ready for investment. If you could change one thing about Haiti that would make it open for business, what would it be?
What we would change is the approach that people have to Haiti. Because it’s always been an approach of pessimism. So if I could change one thing it would be that — one, being less pessimistic and more optimistic. Two, to give the government the chance to prove what it can do. We’ve been here for 23 months. The country was rocked by an earthquake, has been ravaged by hurricanes, and in only 23 months we were able to do some of the things we’re doing – putting kids in school, building roads, reconstructing buildings, increasing the security climate, working with investors, building industrial parks. There are now five airports. So those things take time. If I could change one thing it would be to reduce the pessimism and increase the optimism and then give the government three years to see how it pans out.