Last week, I attended a conference at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. The conference sought “to raise public awareness about serious human rights violations currently being perpetrated on women and children in Haiti.” Haitian dignitaries as well as representatives from Haitian and U.S.-based NGOs attended the conference to detail a lack of access to basic services for women and children, including denial of education, health and safety protections. According to conference presenters, women and children are routinely trafficked for prostitution and to serve as modern-day domestic slaves. Just a few weeks ago, a judge in Florida convicted two women of conspiring to violate the 13th Amendment rights of a young Haitian girl who served the family in virtual slavery for over six years. Lured away from her home under false pretenses, Simone Celestin arrived in the United States at age 14 to labor upwards of 15 hours per day for Evelyn Theodore and Maude Paulinto and their family. She was routinely abused physically, made to shower using a garden hose, and had no access to schooling. All of this took place in the shadow of American institutions and laws meant to guard against such atrocities. The situation in Haiti itself is even worse because these children—often called “restavek”—have no recourse to justice.
I walked away from the conference feeling overwhelmed and pessimistic. There are so many problems to address, I wouldn’t know where to start. And as a Haitian-American, I would have liked to have made some concrete contribution but felt my own expertise in trade policy had little relevance for Haiti’s current needs. Ironically, just a few days later I received a phone call from a colleague seeking a trade policy expert to assist Haiti in devising and implementing a coherent trade policy position. The call forced me to ask the question: Can free trade help a country like Haiti? The short answer from my perspective is “I don’t know.” While the current government of Rene Preval is stable, Haiti’s infrastructure and educational system are broken almost beyond repair. The electrical grid is in shambles with power outages being routine. And large-scale agriculture is impossible given the eroded state of the soil. The population is smart, savvy and incredibly entrepreneurial, but the illiteracy rate is high. Foreign investors are not exactly rushing in. My work focuses on using trade as an engine for economic development, but the notion presupposes that certain basic needs are met. It will be interesting to see how this project—and my own views—evolve.