What can Haitians and Haitian Americans living in the United States do to help the island nation now?

It’s a question that came up during a panel discussion May 19 as part of Haiti Week in Washington, D.C., which Busboys & Poets and Paul Altidor, Haitian Ambassador to the United States, organized to raise awareness about Haiti and celebrate its culture and links to Black Americans.

Paul Altidor is the Haitian ambassador to the U.S. (Courtesy Photo)

The question was raised during a discussion at Busboys & Poets on how the panelists’ Haitian heritage shaped their political views.

Patrick Gaspard, vice president of the Open Society Foundation, an organization attempting to bring democracy to various parts of the world, said the Haitian diaspora should develop a strategy to maximize the roughly $2 billion in remittances they send to their homeland every year. “Unfortunately, we are sending those remittances piecemeal, retail, and we don’t have a strategy for how we take those resources and focus them effectively,” he said, adding that the diaspora has a special responsibility because it has a special power.

That money by far trumps the $144 in foreign direct investment the island received in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of State, making remittances extremely powerful, said Gaspard, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa.

The Haitian diaspora should follow examples that the diaspora from India and Israel set when they turned their remittances into tax free, five-percent yield bonds that they used to create billions of dollars in infrastructure projects, Gaspard said. There’s no reason the Haitian diaspora can’t do something similar, he said.

“I suspect that your generation of young Haitians in the diaspora is so much smarter than my generation,” said Gaspard. “And you’ll figure out how to use the tools that you have at your disposal to do those kinds of things and to apply your wherewithal and our resources in a way that can drive meaningful investment and to create independent institutions that have real accountability to the diaspora and to the communities on the ground.”

Marie St. Fleuris, the first Haitian American elected to state office in the U.S. (she served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives), kept her advice simple. She encouraged Haitian Americans to join existing groups that support the Haitian community. “I discourage just starting something new because there are too many new things happening,” said St. Fleuris, now president and CEO of the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children. “We haven’t rooted the things the policies, the programs, the funding enough to be able to leverage and to have greater impact.”