Poverty in Haiti:
Aid, Earthquakes & Imperialism

Published May 2013

child poverty in Haiti - post-earthquake

With nearly half of the population living in extreme poverty in Haiti (and two thirds in “normal” poverty), the government and international organizations have their hands quite full with fighting inequalities, violence, social exclusion and increasing food prices. The people indeed expect quite a lot from them, from tackling social unrest, corruption and political instability to investing in infrastructure, jobs and housing. Most of the extreme poor still lives in rural areas, even if the 2010 earthquake has caused major migrations within the island.

A radically different country

Since the earthquake, coping mechanisms are widespread and have led to generalized temporary makeshift housing in a makeshift economy where no saving is possible.

The extreme poor have but to live one day at a time and cannot rely on social safety nets or any form of government support.

Shabby housing and the absence of social assistance makes diseases one of the main causes of poverty in Haiti. This often forces families to sell their belongings to buy medical treatments and sometimes become indebted for life. And that’s how debt bondage starts for them.

In fact, the state of poverty in Haiti is such that it completely stands out from the rest of Latin America and doesn’t fit any of the models and recommendations usually elaborated for these countries:

  • Inequalities are through the roof, outranking by far all other Latin American countries. Haitian poverty runs deeper and is more widespread than anywhere else on the continent; 
  • Poverty is disproportionately rural (about 75% of the extremely poor), whereas neighboring countries tend to have a 50/50 distribution of extreme poverty, as many of them are relatively well-urbanised;
  • However, over 3 in 4 rural families possess land or have access to it, while all around the world landlessness tends to be one of the main causes of exploitation and destitution.

The causes of poverty in Haiti seem to have radically different roots than in many other countries, at least when looking at land ownership and the distribution of wealth. Let’s see if we can identify what happened along the way since the Haiti’s independence.

A history of poverty in Haiti: the root causes

What are the root causes of poverty? - Here waste is used to build a road...

Independence, neo-colonialism & imperialism

Since the 2010 earthquake, we’ve all heard lots of stories about how corruption, poor infrastructure (roads, hospitals, communication networks), shoddy construction and general poverty in Haiti (e.g. slums) have largely aggravated the death toll of this disaster.

As we’re all increasingly suffering from mass amnesia and stop looking at history to understand the causes of things, very few media – if any at all – have ever mentioned that Haiti has been caught in a mesh of neo-colonialist trouble ever since its very first days as a country. When declaring its independence, following a slave rebellion at the end of the 18th century, France first caused massive destruction to the country when trying to take it back and then claimed a debt so huge it was only fully paid off 150 years later. Just a couple of years after World War II. When everyone was feeling so humane and compassionate.

Despite the slave rebellion, France left behind a tradition of discrimination between the black and mulatto population. This was made even worse when the United States started meddling in, worried that the black revolution might spread to its borders in the 19th century. For decades, the US launched a series of interventions, both political and military, up until the moment they actually occupied the country for nearly 20 years (up until the 1930s). When the “Americanos” left, Haiti owed a $40 million debt to the US. In that respect, Haiti is no different: discrimination and debt are the biggest causes of poverty in the world and the main tools of colonialism too. That’s why you’ll often hear people say that “poverty is man-made” (Nelson Mandela).

Modern history: spreading the roots of poverty in Haiti

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the US government supported the dictatorship that ruined the country economically and socially. Throughout the 1990s, Haiti’s history was influenced again by US intervention: kicking out an elected president in 1990 (Jean-Bertrand Aristide), then re-instating him, then chasing him out again all while sending troops for every other event. With each invasion came a series of legal adjustments, namely imposing the “free market” principles in a way that largely benefitted the US.  It’s a market very free for the US, and very constraining for Latin American and African countries. Ironically, today you'll hear the US complaining about China stepping on their toes and “neo-colonising” other countries in Africa for example.

On top of flashy invasions, the American government’s economic stunts have had just as damaging effects on Haiti if not more. By driving people away from their land, forcing the agriculture to cater their need for luxury crops, imposing their products on the market and creating quite a few sweatshops to manufacture much-needed cheap goods, the American government has done some good to its own economy and wrecked that of Haiti. Along with the lives of its inhabitants.

No natural penchant for self-destruction

Conclusion? No, poverty in Haiti doesn’t stem from an inherent inability to govern, an irrepressible taste for corruption or an aversion for infrastructure. In a way, conservatives will find it reassuring to see how little things have changed in the world in the past 3000 years. It's the same old story. Between the 1980s and the 2000s, Haiti went from being a rice exporter to a massive importer, all thanks to the US. They managed to replace the country’s robust pigs with US ones that require much more medicines and expensive treatments. As for its agriculture, it became export-oriented, causing a massive rural exodus that doubled the capital’s population in 25 years. In any given country, an unplanned migration of that scale will lead to the creation of massive slums everywhere.

Slums? That’s what the western media keeps pointing at for the cause of the disastrous death toll for the 2010 earthquake. Well, they had to come from somewhere after all, except the responsibility doesn't not lie where they think. Below is a timeline of Haiti's modern history (click to enlarge):

History of Haiti: colony & independence
History of Haiti: international relations

The 2010 earthquake & international aid

emergency aid relief in Haiti

The impact of the earthquake on Haiti

The devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti caused over 250,000 deaths in a population of 10m inhabitants. Tragically, it also destroyed the little infrastructure that the island ever had, including administrative buildings. In other words, it obliterated whatever capacity the government had to organise and regulate life on the island. With only two ministries still standing after the quake, it’s millions of archives, information and data regarding the country and its population that were lost. This alone made international and local NGOs’ relief efforts much more complicated.

Needless to say, tons of aspects related to poverty in Haiti contributed to the disaster but the lack of government structure and infrastructure was the icing on the cake. A very bitter, sour type of icing. So, who’s to blame? Can the Haitian state take all responsibility if so many decisions were made for it rather than with it? Should aid take some of the responsibility too for focusing on the wrong solutions?

Aid: 0 / poverty in Haiti: 1

What’s wrong with aid in Haiti? Lots. To begin with the fact that aid is sometimes but another money machine entangled with politics. It may be unfair to present it this way because in the end we are sending food to a country that needs it, but where this gets twisted is that instead of buying from local producers, the rice and flour come from US producers (in the case of US aid). Instead of helping the flailing local economy in Haiti, they keep its head under the water, helping it drown. It's a harsh metaphor, but all in all they only think about promoting their own American (or European) agricultural industry while a country is crying for help.

There are in fact tons of thousands of jobs in the US alone – from agriculture to shipping – that depend entirely on delivering aid to foreign countries in need. Not to say these people should lose their jobs, for example if aid was to actually work, but from a moral standpoint it’s a strange business model. The worst in the end is the whole strategy, which consists in using international aid to get access to foreign markets and open them up to your own products (which are sold, not given away), thus ensuring long term damage to the local economy. And that’s how some governments end up working very hard on not reducing poverty in Haiti. But, in all fairness, not all aid is flawed.

Emergency relief vs. long-term collaboration

If US aid can contribute to chronic famines by not tackling the causes of the problem, NGOs are increasingly aware that the system is deeply flawed. Those with a long term plan in a given region tend to develop strong ties and have a real understanding of what the population needs. Emergency relief on the other hand is the not-so glorious aspect of aid, the one that is extremely chaotic and tends to cause more corruption and inequalities. This is not to say that it's not needed, far from it. But simply that it's the messiest of all types of humanitarian support.

As far as NGOs go, you’ll usually see two opposing discourses:

  • They not only bring relief and know-how, they also set new standards in different sectors: healthcare, democracy, human rights, etc…

  • However to many critics, these organizations tend to look like an overall foreign invasion that replaces local agents (nurses, government officials, farmers) instead of complementing them and working with them.

By entering a country empowered with a solution they alienate its inhabitants from matters that concern them. They can’t solve a problem by themselves anymore and lose ownership of their own politics. In a way this even damages the potential for democracy in the country.

But not all NGOs are born equal. Or not all of them evolve similarly. Partner in Health for instance has a long history of establishing long-term relationships on the field – and in particular in Haiti. By partnering with local NGOs and organizations and ensuring they share the solution with them and the “target population”, they have been able to make a larger, more substantial impact on public health than many other international charities.

Aid, NGOs and the Haitian state

Queuing for food and water in Haiti

NGOs vs. the government

The biggest issue with the interaction between aid, NGOs and governments is that Haiti was left out of the equation, particularly its government. NGOs were identified as the most suited distributors of aid while the state was left to a total collapse, leaving it in absolutely no shape to fight the high levels of violence and extreme poverty in Haiti when most NGOs left the country. Particularly Haitians needed the aid to (re)build the most basic infrastructure that they had lost or that was essential for providing better public services (administrative, health care, postal,…) and distributing aid.

The confusion and disorder that followed the earthquake were a direct consequence of this choice to favour NGOs over the state.  While there is always the risk of corruption, let’s remember that this happened in 2010 and that since the 2000s the main focus of all support granted to foreign governments is on accountability. Entire monitoring systems and other measurements are dedicated to this goal. There will always be a certain level of embezzlement – even in developed countries – but it would have helped fight corruption in Haiti if this step had been taken seriously. Surely, rebuilding the state’s capacity to provide services to its citizen, be it electricity, roads, postal & health care services does seem like a good place to start after such wreckage.

Instead, these services were being provided by NGOs mandated with very strict responsibilities in an environment that demanded flexibility and adaptation. The effect of NGOs’ prolonged presence in such numbers in Haiti (or elsewhere) is well documented. It’s no secret that they tend to butcher local economies and cause rampant inflation by importing loads of food and living in overly expensive houses. But the worst remains that when NGOs started leaving the island, there was no state to take over their place as public service providers.

Making a difference against poverty in Haiti

The difference with organisations such as Partners in Health is that over time they have become accountable to the local population, who would otherwise realise pretty quickly that they are making no difference whatsoever in improving their lives. Also by benefitting from a variety of donors rather than an oligarchy, they’re able to better tackle the real needs of the population rather than obeying to the diktat of a few media-obsessed benefactors.

Another good example of NGOs fighting poverty in Haiti by providing microfinance services is that of Fonkoze. The organisation made a substantial difference by adapting and localising a model developed for Bangladesh through partnerships and collaboration with Haitian organisations. Far from trying to force a one-size-fits-all solution, they realised that they needed to innovate and leave out some irrelevant aspects of the original program.

Indeed, they required much more money than in Bangladesh because of the state of the country (roads, or lack thereof) and the less dense population (e.g. need for motorbikes to access remote places).

If anything, Fonkoze’s connections and relationships on the island have helped it survive and adapt to what Haitians really needed, to begin with access to healthcare – which wasn’t the organization’s main focus at first.

But when diseases are such a widespread problem that the population can't work properly, you can’t discard the issue if you want your solution to succeed. In the end you can’t fight poverty in Haiti without the Haitians, and history has certainly proved that in general it's always the poor who have helped the poor out of poverty.


New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave a comment in the box below.