Friday, January 15, 2010

Why is Haiti so Poor?

Tyler Cowen and others are speculating why Haiti is so poor...

While there are many obvious candidates, one factor among many is that Haiti is almost without a doubt largely still Malthusian. The population of Haiti has more than doubled since 1980 which probably means around 2/3 of Haitians are under the age of 30. Imagine what America would like if this were true? On top of that, from what little I know they've managed to cut down most of their trees and have destroyed their environment.

The fact Haiti is Malthusian does not mean that we shouldn't help -- it's that a big part of the ensuing aid should go to building schools for Haitian girls (and boys). Not only do you lower birth rates, but you increase human capital... Of course, the first thing you do is keep people alive, improve infrastructure, improve the export infrastructure (airports, ports, roads to airports and ports). It's also imperative to get as many countries to take refugees as possible -- the more people who are in Haiti the more mouths there are to feed, and hence the more people who could go hungry in the next few months... Haitian refugees who go abroad and succeed will pay dividends Haiti can collect later -- in the form of remittances, and by serving as intermediaries in trade...


  1. Ummm....Look at the History.

    After they gained their independence, French stationed warships in their harbor to make them "pay" for their own land, and for losses in the disruption of the slave trade.

    From 1915-1934, the US occupied Haiti, and for 15 years after controlled their external finances, and basically raped them again.

    Basically, unlike the former Spanish posessions, where the rulers were from the white elites, Haiti was ruled by blacks, and this was unacceptable, so the US and France kept their boot on their neck for over 150 years.

    BTW, the author of the US "keep the N****** down policy" was Thomas Jefferson, who was terrified at the prospect of their exporting a slave revolt.

    The place is a mess because the US and Europe did their best to make it so, because of racism.

  2. I don't fully understand why it's such a mystery to so many people on why Haiti is so poor. Haiti's reasons for poverty are actually much more clear than many other third world countries.

    As you said, it's mostly Malthusian right now and they have severe deforestation. But, also, they are just on a bad place on the globe. Remember that it took most European countries centuries to escape the Malthusian trap and when Haiti keeps getting hit with natural disaster after natural disaster it, obviously, continually sets them back and it's usually a large set back when you are already so poor. I mean, the 1984 Earthquake which was a 6.7 on the richter scale obviously did them no favors. The 2004 Caribbean floods destroyed a large number of homes and infrastructure in Haiti. Also, hurricanes left and right every few years surely isn't conducive to economic activity. Not only the lives lost, but the economic effects are huge. I had trouble finding exact economic figures for Haiti for the repeated hurricanes that hit them, but it has to number in the several billions of dollars. While a lot of it is likely covered by foreign aid (though surely not all), the set back from the damage is astronomical. For example, Hurricane Allen (1980) caused over $400 million in damage to Haiti. That is obviously huge for any country, let alone a struggling one like Haiti. Hurricane George (1998) did about $200 million in damage and killed at least 400. Even more recently, you have things like Hurricane Hanna and Hurricane Gustav which wiped out thousands of homes and infrastructure and the damage is currently "unknown" (likely meaning it was very, very high). Even the "small ones" that come through often pose large infrastructure damage to Haiti, but little in lost lives, so the media decides not to cover it. Furthermore, hurricanes often wipe out there agriculture from the damage which poses huge economic losses as well, possibly even more so that structural damage, but I don't know enough about that to say for sure.

    I think the fact Haiti is guaranteed to have a major natural disaster causing hundreds of millions of dollars in destruction and thousands of lives lost at least every 10 years is, and sometimes just a year later as in the last few years, more than enough to explain why their economy stagnates let alone it's other problems. Haiti's location is probably the worst in the entire Caribbean. It's location is like a hurricane lightning rod and they are surrounded by nasty faults all over the place. They are located in a crappy place, it's unfortunate but when your infrastructure, homes, and agriculture are regularly wiped out by natural disasters you aren't going to prosper.

    Obviously, you can point to other factors like trade embargoes in the 1990s, poor governance and economic policy, a worthless banking system which regularly collapses. But, my view is that this a product of all the natural disasters it experiences which sets them back tremendously every time it happens. I view it as natural disasters leading to terrible economic conditions and then when they start to inch back towards success, another disaster hits them.

    It's really very, very sad and I think Haiti is one of the strongest cases on the planet for discussing geography (or maybe meteorology and geology ?) in effecting economic growth. Even a place next store like the Dominican Republic experiences no where near the amount of devastation Haiti has over the years for various natural reasons, so Haiti really got the shaft in location terms.

    I also found David Brook's NYT column today offensive and ridiculous, blaming Haitian culture for their poverty or some bull. But the reason I find it so offensive is because this is the view among many conservatives, that it's somehow Haitians fault they are poor. It was really unbelievable that he might not think they are just, quite literally, located in one of the worst spots on the planet.

  3. Geography is certainly a big factor -- but of course, the Dominican Republic next door is a Middle Income country, so it's more history and governance plus geography. Jared Diamond wrote an interesting chapter contrasting Haiti and the Dominican Republic in Collapse...

  4. Now, try to explain why the Haitian communiy in the US is one of the poorest as well. Who are you going to blame this time?

  5. Matthew's right! It's all the evil racists' faults! Thank you Matthew for your enlightening comment.

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