It has been two months since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated the nation of Haiti, and the outpouring of corporate assistance for relief and recovery efforts there has been heartening. American companies, in particular, deserve praise for the size, breadth, and speed of their charitable response. Still, the corporate community must recognize that Haiti requires long-term reconstruction and economic development; a donors' conference in Montreal in January put the price tag at $3 billion over the next decade.
Today, corporate social responsibility obliges companies to go beyond simply providing immediate assistance when catastrophe strikes an impoverished nation such as Haiti. Instead, the business community must strive to ensure that Haiti serves as a laboratory for long-term post-disaster reconstruction.
To that end, let's adopt a "build back better" approach. This is an opportunity for the business community, donor governments, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations to assist in developing better infrastructure, agriculture, educational, healthcare, and telecommunications systems for the Haitian people.
Such an effort will require real public engagement including businesses partnering with governments, multilateral agencies, and NGOs to truly live up to their pledges of corporate responsibility and to ensure progress in the Western hemisphere's poorest country. Corporations must step up with their latest technology and innovations, business acumen, and skilled workers and at the same time contribute to building the capacity of Haiti's workforce.
This doesn't mean companies have to break the bank to make a major contribution to Haiti's recovery. Indeed, in many cases they can make a bigger impact by concentrating on a few key areas related to their core business. Assistance for Haiti's major industries textiles and tourism is likely to be especially helpful, as such assistance will help the government of Haiti restore its two most viable industries and create desperately needed jobs.
Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, noted that with the access to the U.S. market created by congressional legislation passed in 2008, "Haiti can create jobs in its apparel and agriculture sectors. It can promote the private sector by creating an enabling environment for investment and building the infrastructure of power grids, ports, and roads."
American corporations and their stakeholders must understand how helping Haiti over the long term also helps them. By contributing to Haiti's reconstruction in a lasting, meaningful way, companies will be helping to build a new, more vibrant Caribbean market for their own goods and services.
It's time for American business to be a change agent in Haiti. Make no mistake, the Haitian people will embrace the effort. As a well-known Haitian proverb puts it: Men anpil, chay pa lou. "Many hands make a workload lighter."
Jane P. Madden is senior vice president and director of Edelman's corporate social responsibility and sustainability practice in Chicago.