Saturday, August 29, 2009

At Last, Good News about Haiti


Isles Beach, elbow-to-elbow crowds of participants swapped business cards, passed out policy papers, and pitched earnest plans to develop Haiti.

Gonzalez, 25, was busy, too. In small groups and large, he talked about the United Haitian Students of Florida, an organization he heads to get students more involved in Haiti.

``A lot of us, the younger ones, haven't even been to Haiti,'' said Gonzalez, who lived in Haiti until he was 9 and is now a graduate student in accounting at Florida State. ``But they want to contribute to Haiti.''

From Washington's corridors of power to South Florida's classrooms and conferences, Gonzalez and other young Haitians from outside the country are developing ways to help rebuild from decades of economic devastation and civil strife.

The effort comes at a crucial moment for Haiti. The country enjoys a semblance of political stability not seen in years, and former President Bill Clinton, the United Nations' special envoy to Haiti, is trying to lure foreign investors after the country suffered widescale destruction from last year's spate of hurricanes and tropical storms.

At the diaspora conference, where Clinton urged Haitians overseas to play an active role in what happens in Haiti, the idea of youths helping Haiti popped up repeatedly.

The basic premise is for first-, second-, or third-generation Haitians to travel to the country during their junior or senior year of college, or after graduation. The in-the-trenches work ranges from teaching computer skills to planting trees.

One conference speaker likened the role of young Haitians going to Haiti to the rite-of-passage trip many young Jews take to Israel. The reason: It's a chance to do good, to forge meaningful ties with culture and community.

``This is an opportunity to create bonds that are not artificial bonds, that are not familial bonds,'' said David Elcott, a professor of public service at New York University.

At the diaspora conference, Elcott urged Haitian parents outside the country to encourage their children to volunteer in Haiti. The work, Elcott noted, is in keeping with President Barack Obama's inaugural call for public service.

Opportunities to visit Haiti are likely to increase now that the United States has downgraded its travel advisory to the country. It no longer advises against nonessential travel.

Robert Maguire, an international affairs professor at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., has worked on the idea for the past seven or eight years, though political unrest in Haiti had thwarted progress.

Development in Haiti rests heavily on building the health and education systems, Maguire said, and so the diaspora is ideally suited for teaching, in part, because of its knowledge of Creole.

Maguire has passed the idea on to State Department officials.

``The U.S. authorities are certainly aware of this,'' said Maguire, an expert on Haiti. ``I introduced the idea as a kind of mechanism that would facilitate productive engagement of Haitian youth.''

A spokeswoman from the State Department said that the agency has received the proposal and looks forward to discussing it soon with Maguire.

Maguire and other advocates of such ties say the benefits of a diaspora connection are countless.

Carolyn Rose-Avila, a former Peace Corps volunteer and director, has helped draft a proposal for a diaspora youth program, which she said would help fill a void since the Peace Corps no longer operates in Haiti.

The Peace Corps suspended its Haiti program in June 2005 because of security concerns and shut down entirely in April 2006. It is not clear when or if it will resume work in Haiti; a Peace Corps spokeswoman said the agency has not received an invitation from the Haitian government to reestablish a program.

Its absence moved Rose-Avila to consider the Haiti Volunteers in Education Corps. Young people, she said, view the country without cynicism.

``I was driven by the fact that the Peace Corps was no longer in the country,'' said Rose-Avila, a board member with the Favaca volunteer nonprofit and its former executive director. ``Since [the Peace Corps] is not in Haiti, I thought it was a major disconnect. Young people tend to work in a different space -- they don't try to know all the answers. They don't come in thinking Haiti's a `basket case,' but that it presents a wonderful experience.''

Along with a few colleagues, Rose-Avila hammered out a program sketch, which would require $1 million to start. The project would target college students or recent graduates as volunteers to help teach computer skills, environmental conservation, math, reading and English for at least one semester.

Axelle Latortue is among those interested in creating a youth program. The 27-year-old daughter of Haiti's Miami Consul General, Ralph Latortue, she sees the diaspora's involvement as instrumental to Haiti's development.

``You have people not as politically engaged or politically polarized as the older generation,'' Latortue said. ``They come with creativity in approaching Haiti's problems.''