Haiti’s Struggle Towards Development

By Isabel Morales

The Haitian Revolution is described as the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. By 1804, Haiti had succeeded in both ending slavery and gaining independence from France—the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to break free from colonial rule. Although inspired by concepts of human rights, equality, and democracy from the French Revolution, these ideas were unfortunately not applied to Haitian society after independence (Sutherland, 2019). A history of political instability, social unrest, and natural disasters have prevented the country from reaching its potential, keeping it as one of the poorest and least equal countries in the world (World Bank, 2020).

France did not recognize an independent Haiti until 1825 after they agreed to pay reparations after gaining independence. Failing to accept France’s demand, meant facing the potential risk of war (Tharoor, 2015). Over the next 120 years, around 80% of Haiti’s revenues went to paying off the debt with France. Prioritization of repaying the debt took money away from efforts of industrialization, education, and development of its democratic institutions (Labrador, 2018). This economic burden and its effects are reasons for Haiti’s progress in development and ongoing instability.

Currently, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. About 60% of 11 million Haitians live under the poverty line, and 24 % are considered “extremely poor” (World Bank, 2020). Located on a geological fault line in the Caribbean, Haiti is one of the most exposed in the world to natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes (Singh & Barton-Dock, 2015). Factors such as a lack of city planning, inadequate infrastructure, and widespread dependence on subsistence farming, magnify the impact of these natural disasters (Labrador, 2018). The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 left an estimated 220,000 people dead, 300,000 injured, and more than 1 million displaced. Eight of Port-au-Prince's hospitals were destroyed, and 22 seriously damaged (PAHO & WHO, 2011). Major roads were blocked and close to 300,000 buildings were destroyed (History Editors, 2011). The Inter-American Development Bank estimated the economic damage to be around $8 billion to $14 billion (Morales, 2020, p. 5).

Even ten years after the 2010 Earthquake, the country is still struggling to recover from the damage despite billions spent in relief efforts. The slow recovery regardless of financial aid is attributed to the few resources that Haiti has to tackle these challenges. Few people or businesses pay taxes due to a lack of trust in the government, and the state provides limited services (Morales, 2020, pp. 2-5). Yet, even with international support, there is still no full recovery. The explanation lies in the weakness of Haitian public institutions and the disorganization of international assistance (Savard et al., 2020). Historically, Haiti was managed by the military, which played an important role in natural disaster management. But the dismantling of the national army under Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s presidency (2001-2004) led to the failure of the army’s natural disaster management skills being transferred to other civilian public institutions. Also, after the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, many studies reported the presence of thousands of nongovernmental organizations. However, on its official list, the Ministry of Planning and External Cooperation (MPCE) only recognized about 300 of the NGOs, implying that most of them were operating obscurely (Savard et al., 2020). There was little cooperation among the organizations or with the government. Critics such as Brian Concannon, who is the founder of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, have accused NGOs of poorly administering billions of dollars in aid and failing to efficiently implement development projects (Labrador, 2018).

Haiti has had a long series of dictators, culminating in the 1950s with President François Duvalier. His son, President Jean-Claude Duvalier, succeeded him in 1971. Since the fall of the Duvalier’s dictatorship in 1986, Haiti has struggled to overcome the Duvalier’s legacy of authoritarianism, disrespect for human rights, underdevelopment, and extreme poverty (Morales, 2020). Under the current President Jovenel Moïse, Haiti is still experiencing growing instability mainly due to corruption, such as money laundering and embezzlement. The parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2019 were not organized by the government, so as of mid-January 2020, there is no functioning legislature, and Moïse is ruling by decree. There is constant social unrest due to continued poverty, lack of job opportunities, and public calls to end corruption (Morales, 2020). The corruption scandal is linked to accusations that Haitian officials stole millions of dollars from a development fund subsidized by Venezuela, that was intended to help low-income Haitians. The PetroCaribe program was set up by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2005, to allow multiple Latin American and Caribbean countries to benefit from Venezuelan oil loans and subsidies (NEWS WIRES, 2020).

After the Venezuelan economy started to collapse, Haiti became vulnerable to fuel shortages. The money was designated for investment in roads, hospitals, and social programs to help the poor. Following a lack of results, the Haitian senate reported evidence of widespread corruption (Kennedy, 2019). The amount of money in government funds was misreported, and at least $2 billion (equivalent to almost a quarter of Haiti’s total economy for 2017) went missing, and Haitians saw few of the promised benefits. Yet, Moïse and his government deny any of the allegations. Haiti currently has a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) score of 18 out of 100, categorizing it as highly corrupt (Transparency International, 2019). Corruption, is, therefore, a fundamental cause of Haiti’s staggering levels of poverty and underdevelopment (Nugent, 2019).

Nonetheless, development is not unobtainable. Haiti has made long-term progress in the past ten years. Basic health indicators improved significantly by achieving zero laboratory-confirmed cases of cholera—a disease that killed ten thousand and infected nearly one million— for the last nine months of 2019 (Morales, 2020, p. 5). Recently, the Haitian government approved the National Risk and Disaster Management Plan 2019-2023. The Plan aims to improve knowledge of disaster risks, improving governance to mitigate the effects of disasters, develop and use sustainable financial mechanisms to reduce the factors of disaster risk, and effectively ensure the preparation, response, and rapid post-disaster recovery (NNW, 2020). The plan will be implemented through strategies for both the public and private sectors, institutional mechanisms, and evaluating the system at different stages (UNDP & UNDRR, 2020). The World Bank also approved on October 9 of this year, a $60 million grant from the International Development Association (IDA) for the Haiti Digital Acceleration Project. It focuses on “addressing key bottlenecks to digital development and help develop the digital economy as a driver of growth, a stronger recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, and the ability to more effectively respond to future shocks”. One of the projects will particularly offer opportunities for women, girls, at-risk youth, and the rural population to access skills training (World Bank & IDA, 2020).

However, the lack of results of more pressing issues, such as poverty, bring about the complex debate about how to tackle corruption and other obstacles threatening Haiti’s development. Although the pursuit of evidence tied to the PetroCaribe scandal was a step against corruption, governmental investigations are not enough. According to Georges A. Fauriol, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “there is a need to develop more sustainable mechanisms to address widespread public sector corruption” (Fauriol, 2020). For instance, a more promising solution would be to use regional support by taking advantage of Haiti’s membership in the Caribbean Free Trade Area and CARICOM (The Caribbean Community). CARICOM could develop an effective regional anti-corruption mechanism that Haiti could find more approachable than resorting to national mechanisms that would probably be ineffective. This is similar to existing regional and international assistance initiatives on anti-corruption, like the CARICOM Implementing Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) (Fauriol, 2020).

Projects for development created by international organizations and financial institutions like the World Bank are truly necessary for advancement and the reduction of poverty. Yet, development plans will only be effective if they can, in fact, be carried out without the interference of external factors like corruption and natural disasters. Without plans to truly tackle underlying threats being posed to future progress, Haiti will continue to struggle with development for many years to come.

Isabel Morales is an international student from Colombia at the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently a sophomore majoring in Economics with a minor in French and a Certificate in Latin American Studies. Through her experiences living in Colombia, the United States, and Israel, along with the opportunities offered by the university, she has become greatly interested in Latin American affairs and its role in the study of development economics. As a Panoramas intern, Isabel hopes to promote the region and continue exploring areas of interest such as politics, development, and human rights.


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