INTERVIEW-U.S. govt insurer ready to back Haiti reconstruction

Tue Mar 9, 2010 5:14pm EST

* OPIC already offering insurance, loan support to NGOs

* Willing to increase Haiti exposure to back US investors

* Housing, infrastructure, energy seen as focus sectors

By Pascal Fletcher

MIAMI, March 9 (Reuters) - U.S. government insurer and lender OPIC is supporting U.S. private relief organizations working in quake-hit Haiti and will back U.S. companies that invest in the Caribbean country's reconstruction, an OPIC official said on Tuesday.

"We see a lot of opportunity in the reconstruction," said Suzanne Etcheverry, manager for insurance at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. government agency that provides project financing and political risk insurance cover for U.S. investors in developing countries.

"We are looking at supporting infrastructure, as well as rebuilding shelter, schools, roads, helping the energy sector, deploying assets to do all this, supporting U.S. companies that are putting their own equity at risk," Etcheverry told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference on Haiti's reconstruction in Miami.

Following the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake that shattered the capital and other towns in the Western Hemisphere's poorest state, Haiti's government and its foreign aid partners are now turning their attention from emergency humanitarian relief to recovery and rebuilding strategies.

Up to 300,000 people may have been killed in the quake, Haiti's President Rene Preval has said, and some experts have called it the deadliest natural disaster of modern times.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have already poured into Haiti in the form of emergency aid provided by governments, multilateral lenders and nongovernmental organizations, but private companies are now scenting lucrative business opportunities in areas like rubble removal and the rebuilding of housing and infrastructure.

Etcheverry said OPIC could help provide a more secure investment framework for U.S. companies looking to find business in Haiti's reconstruction.

"We can do a lot, provided that there is U.S. investment that is willing to take the risk and go there," she said.

Etcheverry said OPIC's existing exposure in Haiti before the quake was small -- nearly $23 million in insurance support for three projects -- but was expected to rise.

"We are very willing to increase our exposure there for projects that are eligible," she said.

Since the quake, OPIC had opened up a $50 million special line of credit, as well as direct loans and discounted political risk insurance, for U.S. NGOs working on disaster relief in Haiti.

This was intended to support such groups as they deployed assets, vehicles and construction equipment on the ground.

RISK OF POLITICAL INSTABILITY

In addition, the agency was extending a $10 million loan to a Miami Beach, Florida-based company, InnoVida Holdings, LLC, to build fiber composite panels that would be used to construct 32,000 energy-efficient homes in Haiti in the next five years.

"We turned that around very, very quickly, which demonstrates how committed we are to doing work in Haiti," said Etcheverry.

Experts predict rebuilding of housing could account for as much as 60 percent of the overall Haiti reconstruction effort.

Etcheverry said OPIC was ready to support investment in the long-term rebuilding of the country, as well as underwriting more immediate humanitarian operations.

Telecommunications and energy would be other possible areas of investment for U.S. companies, she added.

Under OPIC's statutes, however, the agency could not back investment projects that might have a negative impact on the U.S. economy and jobs -- specifically in the Haitian apparel sector, which benefits from the United States' Hope II Act that gives such textile exports preferential access to the United States.

Etcheverry was clear, however, that U.S. investors in Haiti's reconstruction could face risks.

"I think the risks are political instability, unrest that can result from a general breakdown of living structures, basic infrastructure, basic security. I think that's a real risk in any situation where something as catastrophic (as this) has happened," she said.

But she added: "I hope we can play a role in making investors more comfortable in going into these kinds of situations."

Analysts and aid workers say they fear delays in providing humanitarian aid and longer-term shelter and employment for hundreds of thousands of Haitians left homeless and jobless by the earthquake could spark unrest in the poor nation which has a history of political instability and conflict. (Editing by Leslie Adler)



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