As I walked down a street in the centre of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince, a young man peeled away from his group of friends and approached me.
The usual dance ensued: Where are you from? Canada. How do you like Haiti? It's very nice. Is this your first time here? No. Etc., etc. Then we got around to what I do.
"You have to write that Haiti's not as bad as people think," he said before turning off to meet up with his friends again. "You must tell people."
Haitians are well aware of their country's bad reputation (see sidebar). In a world where countries have become brands, Haiti is a dud on par with the Edsel, New Coke or Zune.
With the global downturn hitting remittances, foreign investment and, potentially, development assistance to poor countries such as Haiti, the competition for scarce resources is likely to heat up.
And although Bill Clinton has taken up the mantle of Haiti's cheerleader-in-chief, his first pronouncements in that role suggest he backs a global system that critics say punishes low-income nations lacking bargaining power.
So how important is a country's image?
"While tourism is often the most visible manifestation of a country brand, it is clear that the image, reputation and brand values of a country impact its products, population, investment opportunities and even its foreign aid and funding," according to FutureBrand's latest Country Brand Index which argues branding is all the more important in this economic crisis.
In other words, reputations, whether true or false, matter.
Haiti is the most dangerous country in the region for foreign companies, according to Latin Business Chronicle's Latin Security Index.
But the numbers tell a different story. Based on statistics provided by the UN peacekeeping mission, Haiti's homicide rate last year was slightly lower than the most recent official U.S. numbers. It was a quarter of the rate in tourist-packed Dominican Republic with which it shares the island of Hispaniola and a tenth of Jamaica's.
In the first months of this year, kidnappings were down 75 per cent from the same period the previous year.
And yet, the Canadian government advises its citizens against any non-essential travel to Haiti.
"Murder, kidnapping, armed robberies, burglaries, and carjackings are common in daylight hours," cautions a Foreign Affairs travel warning. And further down: "Avoid walking alone at all times."
Gilles Rivard, Canada's ambassador to Haiti, said he wants to see that language changed.
"We tell private sector people to come and invest in Haiti but on the other side, we say don't come, it's a dangerous country," he said. "I think we have to be consistent.”="
But nearly two months on from the interview, nothing has changed.
Corruption is a relative term
Haiti has a bad reputation for more than just insecurity.
It scored fourth from the bottom -- behind Afghanistan and Zimbabwe -- on Transparency International's latest ranking of countries based on perceived corruption.
This perceived corruption explains why Canada, the second biggest bilateral donor to Haiti after the U.S., refuses to give any budgetary support to the Haitian government, a policy critics say undermines an already weak and cash-strapped state.
"We have a responsibility to make sure that money is not wasted," said a Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) official in Haiti. "At this point, we feel the government is not ready, sufficiently anyway, so that we can give them a cheque and trust their system for the good management of that money."
Rigaud Pasteur, the president of a local organization which got CIDA funding to help clean up the city of Gonaïves following a series of killer storms last year, condemned the level of government waste and corruption but suggested NGOs are not above reproach either.
"There needs to be more transparency on both ends," he said.
In the opinion of Patrick Elie, a former cabinet minister and political activist, Haiti gets busted for its corruption because of a lack of sophistication.
"I think it's a culturally biased and fundamentally racist view of what corruption is all about," he said.
He compares the prevailing corruption logic to believing a Haitian who chops someone's head off with a machete is somehow more violent than an American fighter pilot who kills dozens with a missile.
"Nobody's going to say there's no corruption here. It's obvious," he said. "But it's certainly not the only kind of corruption in the world."
Squeezing the turnip
Aniket Bhushan, a researcher at Ottawa's North-South Institute, doesn't necessarily think branding is more essential during a crisis. He says perception is important at the best of times. But he warns the pie is shrinking and more people are trying to get a piece.
Both remittances sent home by people working abroad and foreign investment in low-income countries are already down. As for official development assistance, it's too early to see any patterns, but Bhushan said past financial crises in Japan and Scandinavia led governments to make politically easy cuts to foreign aid.
A new study of 10 low-income countries by the British think tank Overseas Development Institute suggests the downturn is hitting the world's poor harder than expected. But the impacts on poor countries can be very different, according to Bhushan, even among neighbours. Still, he expects the effects of what he calls "a downturn of no real making of their own" to set in more slowly than in rich countries but to stick around longer. If he's right, he worries international attention to the crisis could waver prematurely.
"Once developed countries start to recover, there will be a presumption that's happening everywhere," he said. "And that will be very dangerous."
This looks like a job for...
PR ubermensch Bill Clinton officially took up his $1/year position as the new UN Special Envoy for Haiti this month. Judging by his inaugural press conference, he will push donor countries to live up to their aid pledges, support the Haitian government's development plan, and promote a piece of American legislation that would give Haiti's struggling textile industry preferential access to the U.S. market.
Hailed by some as a golden opportunity to create thousands of new jobs, the HOPE II legislation is seen by others as a continuation of Haiti's exploitation as a source of cheap labour, a role Haitian economist Camille Chalmers says the U.S. imposed on his country a century ago.
Chalmers believes one of the keys, along with improved infrastructure, to creating "viable" jobs -- ones linked to agriculture and domestic demand -- is an image overhaul that would ideally include the departure of the 9,000 UN police and soldiers he says perpetuate the country's image as a scary place.
"Based on international opinion, Haiti is a country to be avoided at all costs," he said.
As for the Haitian government's plan Clinton praised, it's actually based on a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper drawn up in conjunction with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
These papers, of which there are dozens worldwide, are "highly problematic", according to the University of Ottawa's Stephen Brown.
"Every single PRSP comes up with the same formula that is not all that different from the structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and IMF in the 90s," he said. "Governments are told to choose but really, there's only one item on the menu."
The North-South Institute's Bhushan believes there is a double standard at play. While governments in rich countries like Canada and the U.S. are spending massive amounts on stimulating their own economies, international financial institutions require austerity from poorer countries.
And although Bhushan recognizes loans and bailouts always involve conditions, he questions the fairness of demanding lower government expenditures for countries that are haemorrhaging capital and in no position to object.
"That's not conditionality," he said. "You're running the country."
Elie thinks the same is often true of foreign aid more generally.
"It always comes with strings attached," he said. "And sometimes, those strings are like cables."
Related Tyee stories:
- In Haiti, like BC, Business Fights Rise in Minimum Wage
In both places, a living wage vs. threats of job losses.
- Haiti Turning into Canada's Iraq
'Peacekeeper' image at risk as violence, repression mount.
- Our Legacy of Shame in Haiti
Essay keying off the book Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward.
Read more: Politics