Why is Haiti poor?
This is a really, really complicated question. Once, on an assignment in downtown Leogane, I was sent with a team to investigate why a business operated by a good-humored entrepreneur had failed. He was likable, enjoyed selling, and had attended school long enough to know basic arithmetic, but he was legless. Operating a business without legs is a massive setback in any country, but Haiti’s circumstances make it almost impossible. In the United States or any other developed country, a person can at least sue for damages when they are robbed, invoke certain disability protections, or attend college and learn how to advance their business. The Haitian gentlemen we interviewed lost his store because Haiti’s corrupt courts could not help him collect money others owed him, and Haiti’s corrupt police force would not stop thieves from stealing his goods. All entrepreneurs have needs, and an efficient government answers them.
Why do some countries have these protections, and some like Haiti, do not? Haiti’s colonial legacy created the extractive institutions that permit poverty, and each new government over the course of its two-hundred year existence has preserved these institutions to its benefit.
The Haitian slave regime made its white slaveholding elite unimaginably wealthy, and they only comprised about 5% of the island’s colonial population. With such an unbalanced ratio of black to white and poor to rich, there were rare opportunities for blacks, usually through the military or white ancestry, to fill less labor-intensive roles and ascend to slaveholding positions. These free blacks were the seeds of Haiti’s future independent ruling elite.
When the Revolution shook the Haitian political order from 1791 to 1804, these free blacks rose to the top of society and took ownership of the sugar cane plantations. This tiny group of people inherited all of the political and economic cards, but if they were to build a more inclusive society, the new elites would need to give up some of their power. They didn’t.
Under the new regime, the government promised France it would make reparative payments for all of the property destroyed in Haiti’s fight for independence. The Haitian working class was put in an iron vice. To keep its promise to France, the Haitian government taxed the rural agrarians to pay the French instead of funding schools or creating a stable police force to ensure everyone’s property rights. The result? The new Haitian planter elite kept churning out sugar cane and getting rich, while the workers were forced to till the cane fields for their next meal. Want to go to school? There aren’t any. Want to start a business? Expect to get robbed, charged sky-high interest, or cheated by debtors with no retribution. Haiti’s present-day economy still closely resembles this.
What about America? How come the United States, a former colony, does not languish in poverty while corrupt leaders extract the nation’s resources and hold themselves above the will of the people? This is a great question, but its answer is surprisingly simple: at the time of the Constitution’s forming, Americans had already tasted democracy and empowerment. King George III left his colonies alone for much of their existence while they ruled themselves and traded with Britain. When forming the American government, it would have been impossible for a handful of rich people to consolidate absolute power. Americans had enjoyed leaders who were responsive to their needs since 1619, so the forces for a representative government were popular, well-organized, and well-funded to preserve the political empowerment they were used to. The United States government wasn’t perfect then and it isn’t perfect now, but no matter how unresponsive or exclusive it has been throughout its history, it has never reached anything comparable to Haiti’s government.
Power in Haiti has changed hands over and over again throughout its history. Every time this happens, the prevailing elites continue extracting what they can from the working poor while providing them with no stability in return. The Haitian citizens simply do not have the economic or political power to make their leaders answer to their needs, and corruption befalls every popular uprising. Elections are rife with fraud. Every time Haiti elects a President, riots erupt in the urban centers. It’s easy to see why. Elections should ideally give our friends in Haiti the chance to choose inclusive leaders that are responsive to the needs of the people, not their personal fortunes. Fraudulent elections dash these hopes.
Even entrepreneurs with legs struggle in Haiti because they are largely ignored by the leaders elected to protect them, so they are often forced to remain tied to the land that their ancestors worked as slaves. After our conversation with the legless entrepreneur, we came to two conclusions. In his eyes, we saw depression and frustration. In his heart, we sensed the scrappy spirit of a successful businessman. With a little help, the latter impression might one day be the only one he leaves.