President Clinton: “We’ve got a shot in Haiti”

Earlier today, a group of bloggers was ushered through the winding corridors of the Sheraton Hotel in New York for a private roundtable discussion with President Clinton. During the nearly 90 minute session, bloggers were able to ask President Clinton questions on a broad array of issues, ranging from his thoughts on the execution of Troy Davis and capital punishment (Clinton thinks that the most significant development in criminal justice in the last 30 years is the “decisive contribution” of DNA evidence), the U.S. policy on refugee settlement (“keeping people in long-term limbo is a waste of human potential”), to his thoughts on food security in the developing world (“you guys ought to bone up on sustainable agriculture. This is going to become one of the big, big issues in the next five years.”)

Those who have been following President Clinton and have had a chance to hear him speak before know that he has an uncanny ability to speak authoritatively about essentially any subject under the sun. Whether discussing job creation in the United States or Israel/Palestine, Clinton always uses facts, data and his deep understanding of the issues. It’s no wonder that the Clinton Global Initiative is such a success, given the unsurpassed convening power of President Clinton and his capacity to move the world’s most influential leaders to action. This year alone, CGI participants made 194 commitments valued at $6.5 billion.

I had the opportunity to ask President Clinton to share his thoughts on the rebuilding process in Haiti. Through his Foundation, Clinton has been one of the most passionate advocates for Haiti, and I asked him what he thought was going well, and what he thoughts was not working so well. Clinton said he thinks the election of Michel Martelly to the presidency is critical. President Martelly “is someone who will make a decision”, he said, and in Haiti’s “highly layered, textured political system, you need someone who is extremely decisive.” On what’s not working so well – I’m sure UN Dispatch readers will already know this – Clinton spoke about the sluggishness of international donors in releasing pledged funds. “It’s a tough world out there, and the international community has not given all the money it promised to give. When there was a political slowdown occasioned by the last election and its aftermath, it in effect operated as an excuse for donors not to pony up. But if we get more donor money this year and we keep the economics going right – and we’ve got a lot of interest – I think it’s going to be really good.”

Clinton spoke of progress in terms of housing, how Haiti has developed building standards for the first time, how solar power and sanitation are becoming part of the way in which buildings are constructed in Haiti. “We’ve got a shot,” Clinton said, “but we need more money.” “It’s a total war between getting more donor commitments released in difficult economic times and getting enough change made before the inertia of the Haitian political system overtakes the energy of the new president.”

I also asked President Clinton what he thought of allowing low-skilled Haitian workers to the United States on H2 temporary low-skill work visas. Currently, there is a blanket ban on these types of visas for Haitians. “It wouldn’t bother me if we allowed more Haitians to work here [in the United States]”, he said, “but there is a separate problem with having an economy which is heavily dependent on remittances (about 20% of Haiti’s GDP comes from remittances). It’s better than the alternative of letting your relatives starve back home, but I don’t want that to be the model.” Clinton spoke of the lack of competitiveness and the aversion to risk of Haitian banks (ie. very few loans being made), and how these banks are able to really benefit from the foreign exchange of remittances. “I think it’s more important to build up Haiti,” Clinton said. (Some, like Center for Global Development’s Michael Clemens, disagree strongly with this perspective. “The current policy is “aid and barricade”, and that policy is divorced from criteria of effectiveness”, Clemens said on Twitter, adding that “Temporary employment visas for low-skill workers will not stop any investment in Haiti.)

While his staff was desperately trying to whisk him away to his next meeting, President Clinton insisted on taking as many questions as possible from the bloggers. His passion for the issues – in particular green job creation and battling climate change in economically beneficial ways – shines through powerfully and convincingly. The way in which he draws from historical, political, economic and social data to tell a story is what makes President Clinton so compelling.