Nature and nurture: why is Haiti so poor?

6 min readMay 23, 2017


March 2, 2016 | Zoe Hamilton | Read the original post

Mother & Son | Photo Credit: Alex Proimos

“Haiti has had slavery, revolution, debt, deforestation, corruption, exploitation and violence. And that was before the earthquake. It sounds a terrible cliché, but it really is a perfect storm. This is a catastrophe beyond our worst imagination.” – Alex von Tunzelmann, historian and writer

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. In 2010 it made international headlines for suffering a horrifying 7.0 magnitude earthquake that wreaked havoc on the already fragile country. More than 250,000 people are estimated to have been killed by the quake and since that time, despite the mobilization of aid by the international community and its “Build Back Better” initiative, Haiti has failed to recover.

In fact, it has sunk further into turmoil and triggered a political crisis that is shaking the country with protests and uncertainty. An interim president, Jocelerme Privert, was sworn in on February 14 2016, as January elections have been delayed until sufficient reforms are made to the electoral process, ensuring it is both fair and open.

However, the roots of today’s development woes and political crises go back much further than the 2010 earthquake. A multitude of forces have contributed to Haiti’s current economic and political situation, four of which stand out.


Scholars have put forth the idea that a history of exploitative institutions in a country lead to further exploitative institutions. That is, the hugely unequal colonial society in Haiti laid the blueprint for modern exploitative regimes.

Haitian children stand atop a mountain in Fondwa, Haiti. | Photo Credit: Direct Relief/ Alex Proimos

Colonial Haiti under French rule was one of the most unequal societies on earth. Its economy relied heavily upon the island’s sugar plantations, which were highly labor-intensive. A majority of the indigenous population endured great physical hardship, harvesting the crop to benefit a small colonial minority. As the local population was killed off by harsh working conditions imposed by the colonists, the French became increasingly dependent on slave labor imported through the Atlantic slave trade. By 1789 the slave population outnumbered the free population 4 to 1, with 452,000 slaves in a total population of 520,000.

Haiti achieved independence in 1804, but the deep scars of inequality remained. Society continued to be rigidly hierarchical and racially divisive, and the country’s post-colonial leaders exploited the general population. This social and political dynamic has persisted up until the modern era leaving a trail of corrupt officials in its wake.

These inherited social and political institutions have directly inhibited the development of a healthy economy. A highly hierarchical society concentrates wealth at the top without distribution or elevation of the average Haitian.


In addition to the obvious negative effects of colonialism, foreign powers have continued to play a negative role in Haiti’s development since independence. For example, even after France left the country in 1804, it required that Haiti pay it back for the loss of its former slaves. It was not until 1947 that this “debt” was fully repaid. This initial burden to the young, newly independent state led to a significant foundational disadvantage.

Haiti flag and sailboats. | Photo Credit: Amy Nelson/ FMSC

The United States played a heavy handed role in Haitian politics starting with their direct occupation of the country between 1915 and 1934. As the country’s most powerful neighbor, the US has continued to intervene directly in Haitian politics ever since. They have assisted in coups (flying out President Bertrand Aristide in 2004) and forcibly reinstated Presidents (also Aristide in 1994). In addition to these direct interventions, the US has led peacekeeping and election efforts, exerting a significant amount of influence over the modern political system. Many have been highly critical of this involvement and point to its destabilizing and delegitimizing effect on Haiti’s fragile democracy. International intervention in Haitian politics has led to many of its people losing faith in the democratic process and the independence of a Haitian government that is supposed to represent their interests, not those of foreign powers.


After the 2010 earthquake the international humanitarian community promised $9 billion USD to “Build Back Better.” The idea was to use the opportunity of the earthquake’s destruction to create a stronger infrastructure and a more productive economy. Though progress has been made, it has been nowhere near what was promised.

Les Cayes, Haiti, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2010. | A United Nations Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH) peacekeeper drives through the slum of Cite Soleil, in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. | Photo Credit: UN Photo/Logan Abassi/Sophia Paris.

With the influx of international NGOs and UN agencies came a wide range of disappointments and, in some cases, even direct damage. Aid money was lost, (the American Red Cross is accused of having spent half a billion dollars on just six shelters) and some development projects have failed. The Nepali UN peacekeeping contingent is even thought to have brought cholera with them, which to date, according to ACAPS, has caused more than 754,738 cholera cases, including 9,068 deaths since the start of the epidemic in October 2010. Today Haiti has not been built back better and many remain frustrated with the mismanagement of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake, which, rather than contributing to economic development, has in some cases detracted from potential development.


Starting under French colonial rule, the Haitian economy has often been driven forward at the expense of the environment. From sugar cane plantations to the giant textile factories of today, Haiti’s environment has been sacrificed in the pursuit of production. This degradation has put Haiti at higher risk of natural disasters like flooding. Intense deforestation (only 3% of forest cover remains naturally in Haiti) and the loss of absorptive topsoil has left Haiti ever more vulnerable to the elements; which, considering its location in a hurricane corridor and on a major fault line between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates, makes this process especially dire. Bearing in mind the increased frequency of extreme weather due to climate change, Haiti is at heightened risk. Small island nations are already widely considered to be some of the most vulnerable to climate change due to rising sea levels.

With few trees left due to deforestation, Western Haiti was severly struck by Hurricane Matthew. This directly impacts the population who suffer from food shortages. | Photo Credit: Sgt. Russ Scalf/ FMSC

Thus, the natural risks of hurricanes and earthquakes, localized risks of flooding due to years of unrestrained natural exploitation paired with the global dangers of climate change make Haiti one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to natural disasters. The confluence of naturally occurring and man-made factors has left Haiti the poorest country in the Americas.

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