Johnny Celestin | Helping the Diaspora to Rebuild Haiti

Johnny Celestin, founder and president, The Haitian Fund for Innovation and Reconstruction

Editor’s Note: I recently attended a New York panel hosted by the Haitian Roundtable on the diaspora’s role in rebuilding Haiti. One speaker, Johnny Celestin, founder of a new Haiti investment fund and diaspora liaison at the Clinton Foundation kept it real about the diaspora’s obligations and offered tangible to-do’s and opportunities. With his permission I reprint his speech, edited for the Web, here.

The issues before us today are so important that we can’t concern ourselves with the possibility of offending sensibilities.  So without being too controversial, I would like to start with the hypothesis that the Diaspora is invisible and therefore irrelevant in the current debate about Haiti.  This irrelevance is nothing new but it is most acutely felt here in the United States because of proximity, the sheer size of Haitian Diaspora in the US, and its influence on the Haitian economy.

Let’s start with a few figures. They are the context within which we are here to discuss the question, “What is the role for the Haitian Diaspora?”

Of the $6 billion that were pledged for Haiti’s reconstruction at the New York donor conference in March, the U.S. committed $1.15 billion, second after Venezuela, which pledged $1.325 billion. Canada is sixth with $379.9 million behind the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission (EC).  France is seventh with $263.5 million.  In addition to their current pledges, the US, France and Canada as well as institutions like the IDB and the IMF have historically had an overwhelming level of influence in Haiti.  It is more so now.  What these countries and institutions have in common is their ability to use their financial resources to influence Haiti’s socio-economic policies.  They provide a road map for what an engaged and organized Diaspora could achieve.

So how can the Diaspora engage in the renewal of Haiti? Let me first suggest one caveat.

The Diaspora is indeed the backbone of a Haitian economy that does not have any real foreign direct investment (FDI).

But if I hear one more person talking about the billions in remittances as the reason to give the Diaspora a seat at the table, I am liable to hurt somebody.

Business investments, philanthropic giving and foreign aid can all be stopped on a whim; they can be used as leverage.  Remittances, which are tied to our emotional obligations to our families and mainly spent on personal consumption, cannot.

This does not negate or minimize the important role of the Diaspora but to transition this conversation to what we CAN do, we must first recognize our limitations.  We must be humble.  The Diaspora can be a strong ally in the reconstruction efforts but we have to be realistic about what we can truly achieve.  In our humility we must recognize that most of us cannot set aside our current obligations.  We have to punch in daily at our jobs, go to school to better ourselves, pay mortgages or rent, and meet other family obligations.  By acknowledging this reality we will realize that in fact we have much more influence from here than we think and our contributions can be even more significant than the remittances we send back home.

I would like to argue, for example, that we have tremendous opportunities and more importantly an obligation to lobby our elected representatives on behalf of Haiti.  That means letter campaigns, call-ins, sit-ins and in-person lobbying should be on the agenda.  A few months ago, two very influential senators, John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) put out scathing reports on Haiti.  [Just recently 45 US Congressmen and women wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanding free and fair elections on November 28.] How many of us here have reached out to their offices?

Reaching out means political maturity. It means creating or supporting institutions that advocate on behalf of Haiti’s silent majority.  It also means linking arms with non-Haitian organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus or the Latino or Asian caucuses.  It will mean collaborating with organizations like NYU’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, which has taken strong moral positions on gender issues in Haiti.

We must create stronger links and dialogues between the different Haitian associations and the Diaspora.  Many groups do not know about each other’s existence.  I encourage NGOs to cooperate rather than compete.  By approaching our work with the spirit of service, the Diaspora could find it easier to develop and acquire a formal role with our counterparts back home.

The challenge before the Diaspora is to move beyond our parochial needs to a more collective vision of the future.

We can use our limited resources to have a direct impact IF we can put our pennies together.  Let me highlight a few examples among the many that exist:

* The IDB has committed $250 million over five years to support the reform of Haitian education; they are looking for partners.  We should be pooling our resources and supporting the reform agenda by working with local associations and donors investing in Haiti’s education sector.  We can create our own education fund to build state of the art training centers that could be located in strategic locations throughout the country: Cap Haïtien, Plateau Centrale, Léogâne, Les Cayes, and Jérémie.

* Create a database of Diaspora members who can donate their time from here to translate coursework from Universities that are interested in giving their intellectual properties to Haitian schools.  Some of us could go to Haiti for a period time in the model of “Teach for America” or maybe even the Peace Corps.  The Haitian Roundtable is developing a database of Haitians who are willing to head back.  HaitiCorps is hoping to do a similar thing for folks whose skills are needed to support the ministries.  My organization is supportive of these efforts and is looking for ways to help implement these projects.

* Support micro-finance programs like Zafén or ETRE Ayisyen Foundation.  These organizations hope to foster entrepreneurship and extend opportunities to young women and men when they come out of these training programs.

For its part, the Haitian Fund for Innovation, which I lead, is preparing to pilot projects: from vocational training in construction and permaculture in Belladère, to a vacation home project in Île à Vache, to an entrepreneurship training project with local Haitian foundations.

We are about to sign a partnership with Konbit for Haiti to pay for housing and living expenses for Diaspora members to do short-term missions.

We are committed to supporting 100 volunteers over the next year and as more resources become available we will be working to place Diaspora in assignments that last months rather than weeks.  Our goal is to facilitate the integration of skilled Diaspora in high-need and high-leverage sectors.

A number of other folks are working on similar projects.  We need to pull them together.  The Ministry of Haitians Living Abroad (MHAVE) in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) will be piloting a program that supports Haitians who want to go back to Haiti on a 6-12 months rotation.  I am on the committee and the Haitian Fund for Innovation will support this effort as well.

All of our efforts will be fruitless however if we do not demand the application of the rule of law.  There can be no real progress in education, health, and the economy until every citizen is confident that the state is a fair arbiter.  Due to the mere fact that we have lived in countries with strong democratic systems, we can contribute to the building of a truly democratic process in Haiti. This is particularly important for those who focus on issues of concern to women and girls.  Our advocacy work must always be framed in the context of a Haiti that works for all of its citizens.

In summary, I’d like to leave you with three closing points: Vision, selflessness and dedication.

Let’s see the broader objectives and get beyond our differences. Join an organization that is doing something, no matter how imperfect.  Help it be stronger and better.

Let’s subjugate our personal ambitions, pride and egos to a shared vision. That may mean supporting a larger project in St. Marc even though you are from Port Salut.  If the Saint Marc project can be a successful model, support it and then focus on replicating it all over Haiti or in your hometown.

Let’s ensure that our love is not temporary. This struggle will continue over a long period of time so make a commitment and stick with it.

Thank you for listening and for your service to Haiti.

Johnny Celestin is the Founder and President of the Haitian Fund for Innovation and Reconstruction Fund at the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.  He currently serves as the Haitian Diaspora Liaison at the Clinton Foundation.

3 Responses to “Johnny Celestin | Helping the Diaspora to Rebuild Haiti”

  1. I must admit I was taken aback by the speech partly because it was both political and professional. One has to contextualize the speech to fully comprehend it. Lately, the diaspora has been call many things and irrelevant should not be one of them. The Haitian immigration has never been political, rather economic. Hence we send money, clothes and other things to Haiti but never ideas. In fact, the diaspora have treated Haiti’s political atmosphere as if it was someone else’s business until now. After the earthquake, Haitians living abroad wanted to help the country but the were literally impotent. Now we see many calls for nationalism and mobilization. While they are encouraging signs, rhetoric alone will not suffice to bring the tangible changes Haiti necessitates. What this speech does is signal a shift in ideology and frame the argument about the restoration of Haiti in a new light. In that sense, the speech deserves its merits. Indeed it is full, as you called it, of talking points of familiar rhetoric; however, it is a positive step as it will incite the kind of revolution the diaspora needs in order to change the country. Living in the US, Haitians know better. In fact the diaspora is an economic powerhouse contributing over 2 percent of the total GDP. I would like to see more Haitian coalitions with significant economic and political capital to influence the political landscape in Haiti. While I applaud Johnny Celestin’s initiatives, I maintain that rhetoric and public relations campaigns are merely enough to take the country to the next level.
    Far from a conspiracy theorist, I attribute the problem to Haitians, those of us who know better and allow the crooked politicians to insist on business as usual.
    Please feel free to visit any of my blogs. The links are listed on rapadoo.com on the right. Post comments at will.
    Chris Celius

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