PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - When Wyclef Jean went to Haiti recently, he had in tow the television cameras you might expect of a big-time rapper and producer.
But he also was accompanied by a pool of buttoned-down business types, including the likes of Canadian entrepreneur Belinda Stronach and other potential foreign investors.
The Haitian-born Jean, who rose to fame with the Fugees hip-hop group and became a homeland hero with his efforts to bring education and peace to the impoverished Caribbean nation, has set his sights on serious economic change.
The Grammy-winning musician said the poorest country in the Americas, roiled by food riots in April, needs foreign investment and help with sustainable development but not charity that could cause Haiti to become even more dependent.
“I understand that there is a food crisis that needs to be addressed urgently, but at the same time donors need to inject funds in projects likely to bring sustainable results,” he told Reuters in an interview at the end of a five-day visit last week.
Haiti, struggling to establish a stable government after a long history of political upheaval since a slave revolt threw off French rule two centuries ago, endured its latest turmoil when skyrocketing food prices triggered the ouster of the government nearly three months ago.
Jean, 35, said the most important contribution the international community could make to Haiti is to invest in agriculture, road projects and economic infrastructure.
“Charity will never solve Haiti’s problems,” he said. “Haitians want jobs, they want to develop their agriculture to produce food, not to everlastingly receive food assistance.”
Jean, who enjoys enormous respect in Haiti and was appointed last year by President Rene Preval to serve as a roving ambassador, was followed last week by a team from the U.S. TV news program “60 Minutes” for a show about the artist and his humanitarian work.
Born in the Haitian village of Croix-des-Bouquets, Jean moved with his family to New York when he was 9 years old. The Fugees, the group he formed with Lauryn Hill and Pras Michel, recorded the 1996 Grammy-winning album “The Score,” which sold 17 million copies worldwide.
In 2005 Jean started a foundation called Yele Haiti to provide access to education, professional training, job and entrepreneurial opportunities and other social programs.
In May he launched an initiative to raise $48 million to expand food distribution and provide assistance to farmers.
Jean has called for an end to the kidnappings-for-ransom that have plagued Haiti in recent years and urged Haitians and foreign partners to create a safer environment for investment.
“To solve the economic crisis, we need investments and to have investments we need security,” Jean said. “To have security we have to start addressing the social problems in the most vulnerable and underprivileged neighborhoods.”
Jean has distributed food in Cite Soleil, the largest slum, and corn and millet seeds to farmers in his home village. Many of Haiti’s 9 million people live on less than $2 a day.
He called on Haitians to unite behind social change.
“Social and economic change will remain a utopian dream if we remain divided,” Jean said.
Haiti’s fractious politics has been on display in recent weeks as Preval tries to replace Jacques Edouard Alexis, the prime minister fired by Parliament after the food riots.
Lawmakers have rejected his first two nominees. On Monday, Preval designated a third, economist Michele Pierre-Louis, who faces an unpredictable ratification process.
Responding to speculation he harbors ambitions to run for president in 2010 elections, Jean said he is not interested.
“When you are trying to do something positive, people think you want to run for some position,” he said. “But I can assure them I don’t want and I am not going to run for president.”
Jean said he would consider it a greater achievement to reach his goals and dreams for Haiti than to become president.
“In the end, I am a rap star and I don’t see myself behind a desk sitting as president. I want to be out there using my contacts to help my country and do what I can do best.”
Editing by Jim Loney and Eric Walsh