By  on January 9, 2012

Two years after a major earthquake virtually destroyed the country, Haiti is still struggling to rebuild — and the fashion industry is eager to do its part.

The efforts are being spearheaded by everyone from companies involved in the Clinton Global Initiative to Donna Karan. Executives who have been on the ground and U.S. and international agencies involved in relief efforts agree that recovery for the impoverished island nation has been slow, but that progress is being made.

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“When the dust all settles and you look at the reality, there are tent cities everywhere — many from USAID, our government has been a major force in helping the people — there are about half a million people still living in them,” said Rick Helfenbein, president of Luen Thai USA, discussing a recent trip to Haiti to help open the 617-acre Northern Industrial Park free trade zone, a mission led by former President Clinton. “When you start going into the countryside and realizing that these people have nothing, all the things that we take for granted, they don’t have. They need shelter, food, water and hygiene. You’ve never seen anything like this in your life.”

Helfenbein said the experience was “beyond enlightening and disheartening at the same time.”

Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, who also made the trip, said, “It was heartbreaking what we saw. One of the reasons I went down as part of the Clinton Global Initiative was to get people and industries interested in investing in Haiti, and after seeing what I saw and speaking with President Clinton…was that the Haitian people need to get back to work. The only way they’re going to be able to regain their footing is to go back to work. Part of that has been started, but much more needs to be done.”

Burke said, “The roads are horrendous, there doesn’t appear to be any control; it’s organized chaos.

“The challenge for them is going to be getting the infrastructure to move product in and out of the factory,” he said. “What needs to happen is to basically rebuild that entire country block by block. There is still evidence of damage to buildings two years later. President Michel Martelly and his government face an enormous task getting their people back to living a normal life and then getting people to invest and create jobs.”

Karan, in a phone interview from Haiti on Friday, painted a more positive picture and said progress is being made.

“Every time I come down, I see such growth, it’s truly extraordinary,” said the designer, who has spent a significant amount of time in the country. “In just the last two weeks, it’s amazing the change I’ve seen. Across the street from where I stay was completely tented and now it’s a park again. What it looks like right now compared to when I first came down two years ago is incredible. Every time I come here I see tremendous change. Tent camps that were full are being emptied out and getting people home.”

She cited one camp that had 65,000 people that now has 25,000. Karan talked about a woman she knows who makes beaded jewelry that had to be imported from China who now is making her own jewelry.

In an update this past Friday, the United Nations Foundation said with about 800 camps and half a million people still displaced throughout Haiti, down from 1.5 million people two years ago, security remains an ongoing concern. To address the safety needs, U.N. peacekeepers and the local police have increased protection by conducting joint foot patrols and sweeping operations, and by installing solar-powered lights aimed at preventing gender-based violence and sexual assault in the many high-risk camps.

In the past two years, U.N. agencies have also helped the Haitian government remove more than 50 percent of the earthquake debris — five million cubic meters, the equivalent of five football stadiums.

Helfenbein, who has been to Haiti many times over the years and has done apparel manufacturing there, as well, also attended an “Invest in Haiti” conference sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank, the CGI and the government of Haiti and President Martelly at the end of November.

His trip included attending a two-day conference attended by more than 1,000 people, representing 29 countries.

“These were serious investors trying to understand the country and the culture,” Helfenbein said. “They attended various forums on areas in which to invest in Haiti and make a difference.”

The veteran apparel executive said he also went to a reception and dinner where Martelly “was there talking to anyone who was interested in investing in Haiti. Sean Penn was there. Donna Karan was there talking up arts and handicrafts and getting involved in those industries. Everybody that was there was somebody who was trying to do good or make a difference in Haiti.”

Helfenbein said when Clinton spoke to open the conference the message was “now is the time and I’m here to interest you and make a difference. It was a pep rally to end all pep rallies. And I think they did the job.”

The anchor of the new Northern Industrial Park, the third in the country, is an $85 million investment from South Korean apparel and textile manufacturer Sae-A Trading Corp. Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York in September, Sae-A chairman Woong-Ki Kim said his six-year plan will begin with 20 lines and employ 1,500 people by this fall, eventually growing to 240 lines employing 20,000 people. Initial factory operations, which should begin around September, will start with cutting, sewing and packing, followed by garment washing, printing and embroidery, concluding with vertical integration of a fabric mill for knitting and dyeing.

Addressing a session on Haiti investment at the CGI meeting, Clinton said, “Even though it went through a terrible tragedy, this is the best opportunity for Haiti in my lifetime to build a society and a country worthy of its people.”

A November report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that the Jan. 12, 2010 7.0 earthquake, centered near the capital of Port-au-Prince, caused physical, social and economic devastation to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The earthquake is estimated to have caused 230,000 deaths, 300,000 injuries and displaced two million people from their homes. According to the U.N., the earthquake killed more than 16,000 of Haiti’s civil service employees and destroyed almost all ministry buildings. The World Bank reported that the earthquake caused $7.8 billion in damage. The U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti reported that the country has received unprecedented pledges of support from around the globe, with bilateral and multilateral donors, including the U.S., pledging more than $5.6 billion to help Haiti recover from the earthquake through 2011. Individuals and private companies gave an additional $3.1 billion in private donations. It is estimated that much of this money is only now being put to use.

In July 2010, Congress passed the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2010, which provided more than $1.14 billion in reconstruction funds for Haiti, most of which was provided to the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. In January 2011, the U.S. government issued the “Five-Year Post-Earthquake USG Haiti Strategy: Toward Renewal and Economic Opportunity,” which targets the Port-au-Prince, Saint-Marc and Cap-Haïtien areas.

As of Sept. 30, USAID and State had allocated almost $412 million for infrastructure construction activities, obligated $48.4 million, or 11.8 percent, and expended about $3.1 million, or 0.8 percent. Of the almost $412 million, about 87 percent was allocated from the 2010 Supplemental Appropriations Act and 13 percent from regular fiscal-year appropriations. USAID accounts for about 89 percent of the $412 million, including funds for construction in the energy, ports, shelter, health and food, and security sectors. State activities in the governance and rule of law sector account for the remaining 11 percent.

USAID had difficulty staffing the Haiti mission after the earthquake, a factor that has contributed to delays in infrastructure construction activities, the GAO said. Soon after the earthquake, 10 of the 17 U.S. citizen Foreign Service Officers, known as U.S. direct-hire staff, who were in Haiti left. USAID, lacking a process for expediting the movement of staff to post-disaster situations, had difficulty replacing them and recruiting additional staff. These staff included key technical personnel such as engineers and contracting officers needed to plan and implement infrastructure activities in sectors such as energy and ports, where the mission had not previously worked. With limited U.S. direct-hire staff on board, the mission relied heavily on temporary staff and remaining staff assumed duties outside their normal areas of expertise. The mission plans to have all U.S. direct-hire staff on board by next month. Since infrastructure activities will continue until at least 2015, the mission will need to maintain sufficient staff for several years to manage the activities supported by the increase in Haiti reconstruction funds, the report added.

For Helfenbein, his feelings toward Haiti turn to what can the industry do to help.

“In our industry, we actually can make a difference,” he said. “Sometimes we’re like the Marines of rejuvenating nations. They’ll send us in first because we can supply the most jobs at the least cost. Here you have a neighbor very close to Miami in dire need of jobs. You have a light assembly industry and an easy way to hire a lot of people quickly and provide them with a respectable income, which down there is maybe $5 a day — a little bit of human dignity and a little bit of being able to feed your family, and the more jobs we can provide, the better.

“It’s said that one working person feeds 10,” he continued. “There were 100,000 people employed in the late Eighties in the apparel assembly business. I hear there are 26,000 people employed in apparel assembly factories now…and that would be a good number, but the question is how do you get it back to 100,000. The roads are difficult if not impossible. The traffic jams are unbearable. Fixing the infrastructure there is going to take a long time.”

Education in Haiti has always been mandatory, but the law was not upheld, he noted. The new president is making sure that law will be followed, so the next generation will be educated, Helfenbein added. So what’s needed is to train people to have a skill so that when businesses decide to invest, they have a skilled workforce.

At the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, UNICEF renewed its commitment to support the country’s efforts in the field of education, children’s health and safety. UNICEF has distributed school kits to 750,000 children and 15,000 teachers in the country. In total, 2,500 schools will be supported by UNICEF, which contributed close to $10 million in this operation.

Helfenbein noted that there are factories operating now making basic products, and while Haiti enjoys one of the most liberal trade benefits with the U.S. on its exports, U.S. brands and retailers today want mostly full-package services. But he still feels the apparel industry can serve a special purpose in getting Haiti back on its feet, which is why he’s been working hard to support Clinton’s efforts.

“The people that came felt more comfortable with the government’s sense of stability and level of confidence,” he said of the November investment conference. “President Clinton could be anywhere in the world and he was there. Maybe we can’t cure all the problems, but maybe we can make a dent. President Clinton talks about public-private partnerships and this is what is needed.”

There are positive signs, Burke agreed, such as Sae-A’s commitment and the Codevi Industrial Park on the border with the Dominican Republic, where textile and apparel manufacturer Grupo M, with factories in the Dominican Republic and Haiti that employ 9,800 people, has built schools and health care facilities for workers and the people in the community.

The U.N. noted that its “Cash for Work” program employs hundreds of thousands of Haitians in the fields of rubble removal, recycling, house repair skills, electric wiring, carpentry and masonry in the cities of Port-au-Prince and Leogane.

As for Karan’s passion for helping the people of the country, she said, “I call it a heart for Haiti. The dream I had when I first arrived here was, I said, ‘This is an amazing place to do a shoot.’”

Karan said there are definitely people going back to work, and while some of the anecdotal stories of people getting back on their feet and going to work sound small, she said, “When you see it, it’s amazingly progressing.”

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to take much more time and effort, Karan noted.

“This is a process on many different levels,” she said. “There are many issues that need to be dealt with. This is not a country that didn’t need help before the earthquake hit.”

Helfenbein said he’s doing what he can to engage his own company and others to come to Haiti and take advantage of what it has to offer — low wages, proximity to the U.S. market and liberal trade benefits through programs such as the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity for Partnership Encouragement, or HOPE, Act, which provides duty free access to the U.S. market. But in the end, the mission becomes more humanitarian than business oriented, he admitted.

“Maybe you won’t make a lot of money, maybe you’ll just break even, but that would be doing a lot of good because you’d really be helping somebody,” Helfenbein added. “You have to be dedicated. This is not for the faint-hearted. But when you see the smile on the face of a poor Haitian, that’s all the reward you need. They need outside people to come in and help them, then they can help themselves. Part of a company’s strategy should be what can we do for Haiti. The more we get the word out, the more people call.”

Burke agreed that Haiti will need to diversify beyond T-shirts into value-added products. He said, “Long term it probably looks pretty good, but short term we’re dealing in human conditions — how are you going to get people out of the tents and into homes…[then] into jobs where they can support their families. They need to develop an economy that becomes self-sufficient. It’s up to the government and private sector to get them out of this mess.”

Burke said the AAFA can be helpful getting companies interested in producing in Haiti, and he’s talking that up to his members every day. He’s also been involved in raising funds as chairman of the Kids in Distressed Situations charity.

Karan said what also makes her keep coming back and why she is so hopeful that Haiti can rebuild and advance its society is that “Haiti is an artisan culture.”

Her Urban Zen Foundation, in collaboration with art project Nomad Two Worlds, launched an $180,000 initiative last fall to create sustainable employment opportunities for Haitian artists and spur art-inspired tourism. Haiti also inspired her spring collection, particularly its black-and-white graphics shot in the Southern Haiti town of Jacmel.

“I’m involved in education, health care and preservation of the culture, which is what Urban Zen is all about,” Karan said. “Haiti is a place that captures your heart. I can’t imagine one creative person coming down here and not being inspired to get involved.”

Karan added, “This all could not have been accomplished if not for President Clinton and his team. He is the inspiration for everything I do.”

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