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Column: How can you give an entire country a makeover?

So the government is worried about Ireland’s international image? Try rebranding a country after earthquakes and cholera, writes Sarah O’Toole of Brand Haiti.

Sarah O'Toole

Updated 10.32am 8/8/11

As the government frets about Ireland’s image on the world stage, a team of Irish businesspeople is taking on an even bigger challenge – transforming Haiti from a country hit by earthquake and cholera into a destination for investment. This means creating a whole new perception of the country internationally. Sarah O’Toole, project manager for Brand Haiti, explains how they are doing it.

A YEAR AGO I received a call from the Soul of Haiti Foundation asking if I wanted to spend three months in Haiti, working on a project called Brand Haiti, a project aimed at communicating a new and positive image for the country. I had always wanted to spend time working in a developing country, not a once-off trip to build houses, but a job where I could use my business skills and experience to make a difference in that country. The opportunity had never arisen, until now. Two weeks later I was in Port au Prince and three months has extended to one year… and counting.

Before I arrived, all I really knew about the country was a little bit of its history and of course the earthquake. I was working with Trócaire’s fundraising team during that time and the response to the emergency was incredible. From the media coverage I had the perception of Haiti being a country completely destroyed, a violent place with high risks of kidnapping, not a country you would want to spend much time in, certainly no more than three whole months.

What I have experienced over the past year has been a true eye-opener. Haiti is one of the most beautiful countries in the Caribbean. It is a country steeped in history with a proud culture of music, dance and art. Haitian cuisine is delicious; the food in my opinion is the best in the region. It is a country full of opportunities for business with a huge workforce ready to get working and get the country back on its feet.

Haiti is not without its problems though. In recent decades, she has suffered more that her fair share of challenges – environmental, economic, political and hence social. These challenges have taken a severe toll on Haiti’s image and reputation on the highly competitive international stage.

‘Things are slowly improving’

The capital city is slowly being cleared of rubble and people are being moved from the camps they’ve occupied for the past year and a half. It’s not an easy task; you cannot just move people out of the city to a site with no access to education, transport, healthcare or jobs. So it is taking time. Many people think the whole country was destroyed by the earthquake. This is not the case. Port au Prince, Leogane and Jacmel were severely damaged but the rest of the country was mostly unaffected. Things are slowly improving and there are many positive stories to tell. Haiti has a new President and there is a new sense of hope in the air.

Brand Haiti offers many benefits to the country; tourism, foreign direct investment, export promotion, international reputation. However none of this can happen without building a sense of national pride and confidence among its people. So the brand must be something that the people believe they can be part of and that will be of benefit to them. I’ve been lucky to spend months travelling throughout Haiti talking to ordinary Haitians, trying to discover the true essence of the country. For, it is Haitians themselves who will create the brand for the country. It is not simply the creation of a logo or advertising campaign. It goes much deeper than that; it starts from within.

I am working full time in Haiti as part of an extended national and international team. Last year we assembled a group of international marketing and brand experts who work closely with a Haitian Steering Committee made up of representatives of key Haitian organisations such as the Tourism Association, Industries Association, Centre for Free and Democratic Enterprise and University Quisqueya. As well as partnering with these organisations, official support has also been received from the country’s new President, Michel Martelly.

Once the new brand is defined it will then be used to communicate one vision for Haiti to its people, foreign direct investors, to promote exports and attract tourists. This involves a full rollout of a communication plan, first within Haiti and then, to the wider international community.

One thing that the project has already delivered is a bank of photographic images that show Haiti in a more positive light. A group of eight photojournalists, sponsored by Jerry Kenneally founder of Tweak.com, travelled to Haiti last October and took a series of photographs which are now part of an image library being used to promote Haiti.

As a foundation, we’re taking a different approach to helping Haiti than that taken by many aid organisations operating here. NGOs certainly have an important role to play in Haiti’s recovery. However, in order to move beyond dependency and into a new era of economic growth and job creation, Haiti needs to change the negatives perceptions that have existed for so long and show what the country really has to offer. Brand Haiti is the vehicle to achieve that goal. This is Haiti’s time to prove to itself and the world that it can and will move forward to a brighter future. The country and its people deserve nothing less.

Sarah O’Toole is project manager for Brand Haiti, an initiative of the Soul of Haiti Foundation which has been operating in Haiti since 2007. The foundation was born out of a challenge set to a group of Irish entrepreneurs who travelled to Haiti in 2007 and 2008. Its mission is to empower Haitian communities to create their own success through their relationship with a community of Irish entrepreneurs.

About the author:

Sarah O'Toole

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