Why Is Haiti So Poor?

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A market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, appears in the above photo, which was taken between 1909 and 1920.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, which makes the devastation caused by yesterday’s earthquake that much harder on an already struggling nation. As death toll estimates continue to rise and other nations flood in to provide aid, we wondered how this small country came to be so poverty-stricken.

Our answer came from Bryan Page, Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Miami.

Professor Page: In the 17th and 18th centuries, Haiti was by far the richest colony in the entire Americas — including the mineral rich Mexico and Peru. And the reason was it had great agricultural riches. And the other reason was it was essentially a slave meat grinder.

According to Page, French plantation owners in Haiti became extremely wealthy by literally working their slaves to death while growing everything from indigo to sugar cane. Page says the working conditions were so harsh that it was almost inevitable the slaves would revolt.

Professor Page: You then have something that is a totally unique occurrence in the history of the world, actually. There’s never been a people who have thrown off slavery and formed a nation other than Haiti — a fact that’s not lost on present day Haitians. It’s one of the things that gives them an appealing stubborn streak.

In August of 1791, the Haitian slaves began an violent rebellion that would eventually lead to the nation’s full independence in 1804.

Professor Page: After they became independent, they ended up in a situation where – number one – they were considered a threat by the entire rest of the region because the rest of the region, especially the United States, owned slaves. A slave rebellion is not a good thing to have so close to a nation that owned several million slaves of their own.

Page says that post-1804, Haitians were discriminated against by not only the United States, but all the European powers.

Professor Page: That discrimination meant no availability of resources to educate the Haitian population, no significant trade with any polity outside of Haiti. Also, the break up of the plantations into individual land parcels meant there’s no longer a coherent cash crop activity going on within Haiti.

Page says these conditions persisted into the 20th Century, which meant…

Professor Page: You still have a population that was 80-90% illiterate — a population that didn’t have any industrial skills, a population that wasn’t allowed to trade its products with the rest of the world in any significant way.

What that isolation essentially meant was that Haiti never had a chance to progress alongside the surrounding civilizations in the region. Complicating the picture even more was a series of despotic rulers that added to the country’s struggles.

Professor Page: [Haiti was] seen increasingly as a benighted, terrible place, in part also because of the collective racism of the white-dominated nations that surrounded them, including Cuba, the United States and the Dominican Republic which occupies the other side of Hispanola.

Page says in 1915, the United States — invoking the Monroe Doctrine — occupied Haiti in an attempt to install some order. That experiment lasted until 1936, when the U.S. pulled out. Haiti continued its pattern of despots, dictators and army coups — as did other Latin American countries at the time — but with one big difference…

Professor Page: [Haiti started from] a point of considerably greater illiteracy and lack of human and natural resources. The other thing that was happening was that those small scale farmers were doing other things. They were using charcoal for heating and cooking and essentially denuding the hills and forests, which now means they have major erosion problems throughout Haiti.

Page says that with no help from the elite class in the country to mitigate the situation, we end up with the conditions seen in Haiti today.

Professor Page: The Haitian population continues to be largely illiterate, continues not to have attractive skills for industry and therefore fails to attract industries that might help ameliorate the situation.

Page says that the Haitian’s high illiteracy rates and lack of marketable skills isn’t for lack of want. He says the roughly 200,000 Haitians living in South Florida are known for being avid utilizers of public education opportunities.

Professor Page: It’s a population that, given some basic resources and furtherance of building 20th century skills and knowledge, they’ll take it. And they run with it. But as of yet they haven’t gotten it… from anybody.

Photo credit: Library of Congress

UPDATE: anthropologyworks.com has a good post about the demographics of Haiti as well.

  • Haiti Earthquake: How You Can Help The Victims:
  • The American Red Cross is accepting donations by phone. You can text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to the Red Cross’s efforts, or call 1-800-Redcross or 1-800-257-7575. Visit their Web site to find out more.
  • Interaction, the largest coalition of U.S.-based NGOs focused on the world’s poor, has set up a Haiti relief donation page, listing several participating organizations where you can donate.
  • UNICEF is also accepting donations for the relief efforts in Haiti and the Caribbean region. Visit their Web site or call 1-800-4UNICEF to donate.