While Haiti is still in the news for its misfortunes, it happens more and more that a sympathetic heart comes to ask me about the tragic destiny of my country. Sometimes, taken by surprise by the dizziness of recent bad news, I can’t find on the spot any explanation that makes sense. Here, I gather, in a sequence that seems sadly logical to me, the reasons for this poverty. As if to not forget, the next time. And never.
For better or for worse, the independence of Haiti in 1804 occurred in a world undergoing an economic and technological metamorphosis.
With the Industrial Revolution, the modes of production, transportation and trade were transformed, with machines replacing part of the physical labor force. The forces of power change and it is at this very moment of transition that the economic destiny of countries is decided for the next decades.
The so-called Western economies are now strongly integrated in this globalization and will be the economic leaders of tomorrow. While economies such as China, India, Africa and Latin American countries serve this project.
Subsequently, everything that we will call “development” is the degree of effort of these countries to catch up.
But from the beginning, the young country of Haiti has participated only marginally in this major transformation of the world.
Indeed, if Haiti is both a product and an avant-garde actor of the political changes of the 18th and 19th centuries, we cannot say the same about the technological transformations and diffusion and the new commercial connections of the Industrial Revolution.
On the contrary, history reveals that the country, a pioneer in the emancipation of black communities and in anti-colonial and anti-slavery solidarity, was left out of this globalization. The nation’s political breakthrough, far from opening doors to the world for prosperity, trade and peace, has been a reason for its hindrance.
Although the country retains its independent status, the price will be heavy in terms of hostility. The independence debt payments, which will take generations to repay, and the political interference the country has experienced to this day (including two decades of American occupation) are evidence of the unequal and abusive relationship the country has with the rest of the Western world.
It is these external economic and geopolitical challenges, among others, that the national institutions have had to confront and have not been able to meet.
The institutional weakness, inherited from the French colonization, was not solved on the day of independence, nor the day after. Based on rent and exclusion, the institutions have never seized the opportunities to strengthen the state, the economy and the citizens.
Whether it was the reforms for agriculture in the aftermath of independence, the industrialization efforts of the 1970s, or those to boost tourism in 1960, all were short-circuited by political and social crises.
As a result, Haiti remained an underdeveloped nation; from an essentially agricultural economy in the days of the colony of Santo Domingo, it slipped into an urbanized economy, without adequate modernization and mostly informal.
From one production structure to another, something has changed very little: the country remains a low-wage economy and has only its low-wage skills to offer the world.
In the days of slavery, captive labor was not worth a penny, but it was valuable labor on the plantations and in the households, keeping the wheels of triangular trade turning.
Today, cheap labor is used in the country’s few factories; it also helps in neighboring countries that need it: the Dominican Republic, the United States, several Caribbean islands and, more recently, South America.
The comparison is apt and ends there, for it is the income from their work that intensely feeds the national economy through remittances. However, it reveals the stagnation of the place of Haitian labor force in the value chains of international trade.
What is missing for economic transformation is the sustained dynamism to move from an economy based on cheap labor to one based on higher productivity activities.
Investment in industrial activities and openness to foreign investment are generally levers that lead to this transition, capable of creating a middle class and bringing about technological transfer. Education, as an investment in human capital, is one of the fundamental keys to this gain in productivity and competitiveness.
This process can happen within a generation: the parent works, the child goes to school, acquires higher skills, and when better opportunities arise in his or her region or in more dynamic cities, this child, now an adult, can seize them. The government, in turn, creates the conditions for private investment, and thus saves more to invest in public education and strategic infrastructure.
This model of economic transformation can be seen in the experience of some Southeast Asian countries. But also, with less rapidity, it is currently taking place in countries neighboring Haiti, for example in the Dominican Republic and Chile.
But whether it is an increase in public savings, whether it is the provision of quality education to the majority, or whether it is industrial investment that creates massive employment, all these elements are absent in the case of Haiti.
Hence its poverty. And all the misfortunes that come with it.