Haiti is poor. In fact, the country is rated as one of the poorest and “one of the most overcrowded countries in the world” (Diamond 354). Despite the countless questions and answers that have been provided about the poverty in Haiti, the situation remains the same. In other words, the causes of poverty in Haiti are well known. However, all the solutions that have been tried so far have not worked. If anything, the country is sinking deeper into poverty.
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A look into the country’s history reveals that on gaining independence from the French colonizers in 1821, Haiti was a relatively wealthy country (Diamond 355). This paper will try to demystify poverty as a problematic issue in the contemporary Haitian society. The paper argues that the absence of goodwill from the political leadership, the absence of inspiration by the citizens, and a collective unbelief by the citizenry that Haiti can rise up from its poor state are all factors that have perpetuated poverty in the small but populous country.
A Historical Perspective into Haiti’s Poverty
French Colonial Rule
During the French colonial rule, the French colonizers were allowed to keep slaves. Under slavery, production in Haiti was high because the laborers worked under unforgiving slave drivers (Corbett n.pag.). Unfortunately, even after Haiti attained its independence, the colonial mentality persisted. On one hand, some wealthy elite employed people and worked them under conditions similar to slavery. On the other hand, a majority of Haiti’s laborers associated work with slavery.
Given a choice, therefore, most Haitians chose not to engage in laborious work. Consequently, the country’s production reduced drastically (Corbett n.pag.). Without enough production, Haiti’s ability to support itself was compromised, to the extent that even today, the country relies heavily on food imports.
The 1804 Boycott of Haiti by the International Community
After emancipation from the French colonizers, Buck-Morss (845) observes that the eighteenth century Europeans recognized the significance that Haitian freedom had on the political discourse of the world. Haiti was an important case because the revolution by the Black slaves questioned the inequality perceptions that had been created by the French colonizers.
The free rulers who would have wanted slavery to continue were not happy about the sociopolitical developments in Haiti. They thus decided that Haiti had set a dangerous precedent for the world (Corbett n.pag). Consequently, most of the developed countries with which Haiti was trading, boycotted its products. As a result, the Haitian economy suffered, the production went down, and people lost the will to produce goods for the export market.
The 1838 French Debt
In an effort to gain recognition from France, Haiti agreed to conditions that the European country had set for it. The conditions included compensating land and slave owners who had lost out during the revolution that ended in 1804 (Corbett n.pag.). In 1938, therefore, Haiti started paying 150 million franc to its former colonizers as compensation for the lost land and properties.
The country ended up paying much more money in accumulated interest for its debt with France. It took the country more than 80 years to finally pay off the foregoing debt (Corbett n.pag.). As would be expected, the debt and the interest that had accumulated had a significant effect on Haitian economy since the money that would have been used in development-related activities was channeled to settling the debt.
Long after its independence, Haiti had one more unwelcome visitor; the US marines. The marines occupied the impoverished country in 1915. According to Corbett (n.pag.), the US marines’ occupation of the country was arguably the “most serious blow Haiti ever had to her independence and self-image.” Even more damaging to the Haitian’s sense of independence was the fact that the marines forced some changes in the constitution, effectively repealing a clause that had barred foreigners from owning land in the country.
Additionally, the US citizens took control of the banks and other avenues of revenue collection hence limiting the funds that local Haiti nationals could access (Corbett n.pag.). Although the occupation by the US marines came to an end in 1934, the presence of the US had been well established during the occupational years. To date, the US still plays a large role in Haiti, mainly because the former is a major source for financial and in-kind donations to the latter.
Based on the aid it extends to the impoverished country, the US also plays a central role in Haiti’s internal politics. Specifically, Corbett (n.pag.) notes that the US has played a role in Haiti’s poverty by giving “comfortable aid packages” to oppressive governments, which served the economic interests of the US, and which allowed the US military to prolong their stay in the impoverished country.
Arguably, the US might not have intended for its actions to entrench poverty in Haiti, but its actions arguably allowed Haitian governments to underperform the development mandate given to them by the citizenry.
Factors That Perpetuate Poverty in Modern Day Haiti
Haiti’s bulging population
Haiti’s population is a factor that has been cited as a major reason for the increasing poverty in the country. As a small country, Haiti just like other countries has limited resources that can only support a given number of people. Unfortunately, Haiti’s population still grows at three percent each year thus making a bad situation worse (Diamond 354). Even more critical is the deficiency of natural resources in the country. According to Corbett (n.pag.), Haiti is plagued by several issues that undermine its use of the few natural resources it has.
For example, wanton deforestation has led to soil erosion, which in turns makes the arable terrain less viable for agriculture. Additionally, Haiti has failed to utilize its human resources potential because all its governing regimes have failed to invest enough resources in the development of a good education system (Corbett n.pag.). Consequently, illiteracy and ignorance are widespread in the country. Without a good education, Haitians are unable to get employment either in their country or elsewhere.
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With high rates of unemployment or underemployment, a significant percentage of the country’s citizenry cannot earn enough income to uplift their economic situations. The result is a large population of people who live in a web of unending poverty and economic deprivation.
Government’s lack of investment in social infrastructure, most especially schools, sewerage systems, water systems, medical services and roads has also been cited as a cause for continuous poverty in Haiti (Corbett n.pag.). Arguably, governments sometimes need to make tough choices, which are often inspired by political goodwill. Evidently, such goodwill has lacked in Haiti for a long time. Different government regimes have been unable to make tough choices that would steer the country in the right direction.
The country’s fiscal and monetary policies are a reflection of the absence of political goodwill by those who govern the country. Political leadership has also failed to question or challenge what Mintz (279) calls “quasi-capitalism.” Rural cultivators are especially notorious for their quasi-capitalistic practices whereby, they limit their commercial activities to fit pre-existing traditions.
In other words, the would-be business people limit their activities, and this arguably limits their potential to prosper, create wealth and create employment for other people in the society. Unfortunately, the government does not question such quasi-capitalistic traditions. Resultantly, the potential to develop is capped, and people who would have benefited from a more open capitalistic approach remain poor. Another failure by government is its inability to unite and provide national coherence to the general population.
As Mintz (301) observes, Haiti lacks “the unifying institutional forms through which class and other conflicts could be mediated, settled or fought out.” Without unifying institutions, the country arguably cannot agree on a unified approach to addressing the problematic issue that poverty is. Incidentally, Crane et al. (73) notes that 54 percent of Haitians live on less than a dollar a day while an additional 18 percent live on less than two dollars a day.
Mintz (272) also cites urban concentration as another reason Haiti continues sinking deeper into poverty. The extreme urban concentration in Haiti’s capital city Port-au-Prince is partially caused by the rural urban-migration, which has led to spatially populated areas in rural Haiti. Another town that has experienced large population increases is Cap Haïtien. Mintz (272) observes that most rural towns, Cap Haïtien included, have been losing economically to Port-au-Prince.
In other words, the greatest concentration of wealth in the country is found in its capital city, yet, even this wealth is not evenly distributed among the population. Consequently, Port-au-Prince is a city of extremes, where the rich are relatively very wealthy, and the poor live in deplorable conditions. Incidentally, and even after years of rural-urban migration, 77 percent of all Haitians are approximated to live in rural areas (Sletten and Egset 10). Sletten and Egset (10) suggest that poverty is to a great extent a rural phenomenon in Haiti.
Arguably, the poverty incidence in the countryside is a result of combined lack of investment by government and private sector players in such areas. For example, the absence of infrastructural services such as good road networks, electricity or even water makes it hard for citizens to engage in economically viable activities. To worsen matters, private investors shun rural areas due to the poor infrastructural connectivity between such areas and Port-au-Prince (Sletten and Egset 10).
The agriculture sector in Haiti also contributes to poverty (Mintz 273). Notably, Haiti’s land mass is not adequate to support its ever-increasing population. Additionally, Haitians use what Corbett (n.pag.) defines as “backward agricultural technology”, if any. In other words, the country is not able to utilize the little land mass it has to the optimum. As a highly mountainous country, Haiti’s agriculture potential has also been highly offset by soil erosion.
A combination of illiteracy, self-interest and wanton destruction of forests has increased the soil erosion rates. Corbett (n.pag.) notes that at first, Haiti residents used trees as the only source of fuel. Later, they realized that they could eke a living from selling wood.
Resultantly, deforestation increased. Efforts to convince people to stop the wanton destruction of forests have been fruitless, because as Corbett (n.pag.) observes, the illiteracy among Haitians makes it hard for them to comprehend the link between deforestation, soil erosion and poor agricultural outcomes.
The problematic issue that poverty is in Haiti seemingly has a historical perspective. As indicated in the first part of this paper, Haiti suffered the effects of colonialism, boycott by its trading partners, the French debt, and occupation by the US marines. Combined, the aforementioned factors may have impoverished the country not only in the short-term, but in the long-term too.
To worsen issues in Haiti, is the fact that modern day issues like sub-optimal agricultural practices, the country’s bulging population, its urban concentration and misplaced government priorities are not providing a solution to the problem that the country faces.
The population is especially a major issue in the country because, as Diamond (351) notes, the country’s resources are unable to support the people that need to be supported. Seemingly, Haiti’s resources are similar to a pie that is shared among too many people. Obviously, such a pie would not satisfactory feed all its partakers.
If Haiti is to overcome the poverty problem, the people (and this includes the government and the private institutions and citizens) have to be willing to overcome the past and build a more resilient and effective country. Unfortunately, Crane et al. (157) notes that the collective psyche of the Haitians seems to have accepted poverty as a way of life.
To worsen matters, different Haitian government regimes have not offered the country direction in relation to fighting and overcoming poverty. As Corbett (n.pag.) further argues, there is a collective unbelief by the citizenry, coupled by an absence of an aspiration for better times for their country. Combined with the absence of political goodwill from the ruling class, the aforementioned factors have entrenched poverty in Haiti.
Identifying the real reasons why poverty is such a problematic issue for Haiti requires deep analysis of all the factors that contribute to the country’s prosperity or the lack thereof. Arguably and as has been illustrated in this paper, poverty is multifaceted and may be occasioned by one or a combination of factors.
In Haiti’s case, a combination of historical injustices, as well as a lack of direction by different government regimes, and opportunistic behavior by countries such as France and later the US, has all contributed to the impoverished state of the country. Other social issues including a fast growing population, high illiteracy levels, high underemployment and high unemployment also contribute to the poverty situation in Haiti.
Overall, and as indicated in the foregoing section, the absence of political goodwill to alleviate poverty in Haiti should be a major concern for all stakeholders interested in the country’s future. Ideally, the political leadership should chart the way forward for the citizenry, and rekindle their hope for better times in the future.
In Haiti, that does not appear to be the case; consequently, the population is growing, the country has a greater social burden, and its resources are being overstretched. The resulting situation is one where the country and its people are sinking deeper into poverty.
Buck-Morss, Susan. “Hegel and Haiti.” Critical Inquiry 26.4 (2000):821-865. Print.
Corbett, Bob. Why is Haiti so Poor? 2010. Web.
Crane, Keith, James Dobbins, Laurel Miller, Charles Ries, Christopher Chivvis, Marla Haims, Marco Overhaus, Heather Schwartz and Elizabeth Wilke. “Building a more resilient Haitian State.” RAND Corporation (2010) 1-178. Print.
Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.
Mintz, Sidney W. Caribbean Transformations. Baltimore: John Hopkins Uni. Press, 1974. Print.
Sletten, Pal and Willy Egset 2004, Poverty in Haiti. Web.