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Private Firms Line Up as Haiti Opens for Business


Haitians demonstrate against hunger in their camp in Port-au-Prince. Haiti's road to recovery took a new twist Wednesday as a trade group representing private security contractors wrapped up a conference on reconstruction in the earthquake-battered nation. (Photo:Thony Belizaire/AFP)

MIAMI - Haiti's road to recovery took a new twist Wednesday as a trade group representing private security contractors wrapped up a conference on reconstruction in the earthquake-battered nation.

"You don't want to look like you're profiteering off situations like these," Derrell Griffith, project director at Sabre International, said. "But there is a need and the people need it quick."

The conference was organized by the Association of the Stability Operations Industry, also known as IPOA, representing some 60 companies working in logistics and security, many of them active in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Co-organizer and IPOA president Doug Brooks said private contractors can offer aid groups and government agencies myriad services -- from translation to police training to running supply lines -- as Haiti gets back on its feet.

While critics say private contractors have run loose in far-flung crisis zones, supporters point to their larger role guarding officials and convoys, and building infrastructure.

"They go into really austere, sometimes dangerous environments, and provide services that can be quite normal, like power generation and engineering," said Brooks.

"It's not so different between essentially a war zone or an area of disaster."

Donations have flooded into non-governmental organizations offering relief following the January 12 earthquake, and as reconstruction gears up private companies are positioning themselves to get involved too.

Regine Barjon, of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce, pushed for streamlined loan applications for Haitian businesses trying to make a fresh start.

"Haiti is very open for business," she said, flicking through a Power Point presentation with a banner along the bottom that read, "Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs." Another slide featured a picture of cruise ships approaching palm-fringed Haitian beaches.

One strategy for creating jobs is to bolster Haiti's agricultural sector, Barjon said, which would also make the country less reliant on food imports. Haiti used to produce almost all its own food, and now imports most of it.

"We might have to import fuel," Barjon said. "But we want to make our own chickens."

Just one of six panels at the Miami conference dealt with security issues; others focused on disease prevention, shelter and jumpstarting commerce after the devastating quake.

The two-day conference was meant to match aid groups with companies they might call on. It comes two weeks before a large Haiti summit of international donors at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Griffith said his company's experience in Iraq meant it was poised to deliver aid to Haiti more quickly than most.

Initially focused on security, the company also installs prefabricated living units used by US troops in Iraq, and by internally displaced Iraqi families.

Some relief experts took issue with this fast-track approach.

"We need to focus on process before product," said Ian Ridley of World Vision International.

Reconstruction is successful long-term when local communities participate, he argued, and that takes time.

Security companies such as Blackwater, now renamed Xe, which has come under fire for its work in Iraq, were not present at the event.

Other strategies for jumpstarting jobs in Haiti focused on sheltering the hundreds of thousands of Haitians left homeless by the quake.

Priscilla Phelps, a finance specialist at development consultancy TCG International, said housing construction could become a huge motor for job creation in Haiti if managed properly.

She favored efforts to help Haitians stay close to their crumbled homes, in temporary structures, while the rebuilding occurs. This way communities remain intact.

"There's a lot of people offering to do reconstruction in Haiti," Phelps said. "But it won't be the best outcome if those offered solutions override local decision-making."

In afternoon roundtables, companies with no security background at all also met with non-governmental groups, pitching everything from water-purifying wands to portable medical equipment.

Ed Volkwein, president of Hydro-Photon, Inc., swirled a hand-held device in his water glass. The wand, which purifies water using ultraviolet light, is already known to backpackers.

"We've been successful in the outdoors, now we're moving into travel... and trying to figure out how to get into humanitarian," Volkwein said.

"When you don't know what you're going to get into, and these emergencies are a classic example of that, this is the product you should have."

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