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Le Saut Falls, Sodo, Haiti

douard Jean. Toussaint Dirige Vers la Bataille


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Why is Haiti so Poor?

Bob Corbett

1999 note: I wrote this essay some 13 years ago. I still agree with most of it, but have some changes in my own knowledge and thinking over the years. But, I've decided to leave the essay as it originally appeared in The Haiti Project Newsletter where I published this.

The question I am asked most frequently is: WHY IS HAITI SO POOR? This is a difficult thing for people to understand, especially for those of us living in a country as rich as the United States. There are some very obvious conditions to note in Haiti's case: the long history of political oppression, soil erosion, lack of knowledge and literacy, a large populace in a small country. But a question of CAUSES for such poverty is extremely complex. I have tried to respond to the question in a manner that points up this incredible complexity. Nonetheless, to stay in the confines of paper that could be read at one sitting, I have had to highlight, condense and simplify.

This issue is a difficult one for you the reader. I urge you to stick with it, to wade through. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The Haitian masses suffer some of the most debilitating and depressing misery of any people in the world. Yet, virtually all that misery is human caused, in most cases, by a tiny minority inside and outside Haiti who have the wealth and power to control.


The story of Haiti is- heavy and depressing. Yet I see hope too. To know the causes of Haitian poverty is to clarify the problem. It helps people like us to know where to focus our energies, our work and our wealth in attempting to lessen this misery.

Not only is this a difficult issue, but a controversial topic as well. I've tried to reflect the various thrusts of the argument as I've encountered them. But, ultimately I've had to decide where the evidence seemed strongest. I'm sure some will disagree and do so with vehemence. I urge you to reply. One of my central aims is dialogue, because it is in dialogue that we grow.

I. Root, but Less Visible Causes of Haitian Misery

The ultimate causes of Haiti's misery are human. They are rooted in greed and power. Both the international community and Haiti's rulers have continuously assured the destruction of Haiti's colonial wealth and the creation and continuance of her misery.

  1. The international community's role.
    1. French colonial contribution.
    2. The international boycott of the new nation of 1804.
    3. The French debt of 1838.
    4. The United States Occupation, 1915-1934.
    5. Post World War II United States domination.
  2. The role of Haiti's rulers.
    1. Slave-like labor systems in the early republic.
    2. The elite's protection of its wealth.
    3. Haitian corruption.
    4. Human rights violations as a tool of oppression.
II. Secondary, but Immediate Causes of Haitian Misery

The international and national political climate of Haiti has assured her misery. But, little by little these forces have caused other factors to emerge that assure the continuance of Haitian misery even if Haiti were to secure good local government free from international intervention. (An unlikely prospect in either instance!) Some of the most noticeable secondary causes of Haiti's poverty are:

  1. Language as an oppressor.
  2. Ignorance and illiteracy.
  3. The system of education (or miseducation).
  4. Soil erosion.
  5. Export crops vs. local food crops.
  6. The lack of a social infrastructure: inadequate roads, water systems, sewerage, medical services, schools.
  7. Unemployment and underemployment.
  8. Underdevelopment in an age of international economic competition.
  9. Haitian self-image.

As well as arguing why Haiti is so poor, I address two factors which are often claimed to be causes of Haitian poverty. One category I will call MYTH. The contention that the Voodoo religion is a serious factor in causing the misery of Haiti is a myth, and an exceptionally pernicious myth at that.

The second category I term PUZZLES. These are areas which are not clear to me. They may or may not be causes of misery. In this section I will try to point out the complexities of two cases: foreign investment in manufacturing and overpopulation.


Haiti, once called The Jewel of the Antilles, was the richest colony in the entire world. Economists estimate that in the 1750s Haiti provided as much as 50% of the Gross National Product of France. The French imported sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, the dye indigo and other exotic products. In France they were refined, packaged and sold all over Europe. Incredible fortunes were made from this tiny colony on the island of Hispaniola.

How could Haiti have once been the source of such wealth and today be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere? How could this land that was once so productive today be semi-barren? How did "The Jewel of the Antilles" become the Caribbean's hell-hole?


    One of the primary reasons that Haiti was such a productively rich land was because of slave labor. When people are willing to put productivity above all other values, then productivity is likely to soar. Not only did the slaves work long days under tremendously unsafe conditions, with little or no technology beyond hand labor, but Haiti's slave system was the most brutal in the Caribbean. Many documents of Western slavery explain that the ultimate threat to a recalcitrant slave was that he or she would be sold to Haiti.

    Unfortunately for the masses of Haitians, slavery did not die with French rule. Rather, the basic concept of forced cheap labor was passed on to the emerging native Haitian elite. The French system allowed for some slaves to earn their freedom by exceptional work. This system worked well to get more productivity from the slaves, and the system was tough enough that very few slaves were able to earn their freedom. Thus slave owners got increased productivity with little loss of slaves through freedom.

    A second group of slaves who became free were the mulattos, the children of white masters and slave women. These children were in a middle ground, uncomfortable to both slaves and whites. The slaves never knew how the white man would respond to his child, but often the slave owner didn't want to be reminded of his paternity. Thus mulattos were not welcomed in either community. Many mulattos received their freedom and formed a special middle class in the colonial period.

    A special class of freed slaves emerged. About 1/2 of them were freed black slaves and about 1/2 of them were mulattos. They could receive some education, operate businesses, own property and in general imitate the French.

    This imitation of the French became the hallmark of these freedmen. They wanted a clear separation from their slave backgrounds. Thus they imitated the whites. They adopted their religion, language, dress, culture, education and ways. But, most importantly for this story, they learned the value of slave labor. The colonial French heritage carried on in the Haitian elite's imitation of the French labor system. This is an important factor in Haiti's later misery.


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