Investor conference holds hope for poor Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Declaring Haiti “open for business,” Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis welcomed hundreds of potential investors yesterday to a conference meant to kick-start an economy stunted by decades of political turmoil.

The organizer, the Inter-American Development Bank, hopes the star power of former US President Bill Clinton can lure new business to the poorest country in the Americas, where 70 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

Local officials said the meeting was the largest investment conference ever held in Haiti and had attracted US apparel heavyweights like Gap and Levi Strauss and a host of Latin American textile firms. International banks including Canada’s Scotiabank and US giant Citi had representatives on hand to discuss loans.

“Haiti is open for business,” Pierre-Louis told a crowded convention hall in French and English. “At the government, we are doing our share. Now we turn to you and ask you to do yours,” she said, adding, “Time is of the essence.”

Clinton, named US special envoy to Haiti in May, was in the hall and was scheduled to speak later on Thursday.

“I think you’ll see a lot of quite impressive new investment coming out of this,” he told reporters.

Pierre-Louis cited improved security in Haiti, roiled for decades by military dictatorship and political and gang violence. About 9,000 officers have been trained for the Haitian National Police force, created when the dreaded army was disbanded in the mid-1990s, to work alongside a UN peacekeeping force of about 9,150 soldiers and police.

The conference was largely focused on agriculture and textiles and began on the day Haiti’s new minimum wages kicked in. Approved by the legislature last month, the minimum for textile workers rises from 70 gourdes, about US$1.75, to 125 gourdes, or US$3.10, per day. For most other workers, the minimum rises from 70 to 200 gourdes, or about US$5 a day.

Georges Sassine, president of Haiti’s Industrial Association, said there was “tremendous” interest in low-cost Haiti from Latin American garment companies. He toured northern areas with a dozen business people this week.

“They are looking at setting up textile mills and factories,” he said.

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