Panelists Sean Penn, former Haitian Prime Minister Michèle D. Pierre-Louis, and General P. K. Keen headed a discussion Tuesday night about post-earthquake recovery in Haiti at the Harvard Kennedy School JFK Forum. The panelists, moderated by Public Policy Professor Mary Jo Bane, agreed that although Haiti has made much progress in the three years following the disaster, it still needs more time to reach and surpass its former level of economic development.
Pierre-Louis started the discussion by remembering Haiti before the earthquake. “If you look at the figures, Haiti was climbing gradually,” she said.
Still, all three panelists expressed optimism about the nation moving forward.
“The difference between the Haiti I landed in and the Haiti today is extraordinary,” Penn said. “More miraculous is the fortitude of the Haitian people.” J/P Haitian Relief Organization, the non-profit organization for which Penn serves as CEO, employs over 300 Haitians, runs one of the largest camps for displaced civilians, and works to remove rubble from destroyed areas.
“There is not a begging culture—the main thing they’re gonna ask you for is a job,” Penn said, adding that the little money most families spend generally goes toward schooling their children. Monetary investment in education would have the largest impact on economic growth and recovery, Penn said.
Keen commented on the need for the United Nations to establish a national police force that Haitians would respect as a symbol of authority. That said, he and the other panelists admired the recent peaceful transfer of power—something that happened for the first time in Haiti in 1996—even in the midst of such a devastating event.
Pierre-Louis also raised the issue of college-educated Haitian citizens leaving the country upon graduation. She insisted that there was social mobility in the country and encouraged expatriates to return to and improve their country.
Penn responded to questions that implied his organization is interfering too much with rebuilding affected areas, and that J/P HRO should leave tasks such as the rebuilding of the National Palace to the Haitian people. Several times throughout the discussion, he stressed that the image the media painted of J/P HRO’s work and the lack of progress of the country as a whole was incorrect. The organization’s work, Penn said, is aimed at “sustainable change” to mobilize Haitians to improve their cities, and that first-hand accounts like his own are “the only unequivocal evidence.”
Penn closed by saying that three years is still too soon to properly gauge the recovery.
“The realist will look at the next 15 years,” he said.