Why is Haiti so poor?

UPDATE 1/14: This post was linked in a story by Discovery News’ James Williams.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola. Following the island’s discovery by Columbus in 1492, Spanish colonialists exterminated the island’s indigenous Arawak Indians. In 1697, the French took control of what is now Haiti and instituted an exceptionally cruel system of African plantation slavery. In the late 1700s, the half million slaves revolted. In what is the only successful slave revolution in history, they ousted the French and established the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere.

Haiti’s population of over eight million people occupies a territory somewhat smaller than the state of Maryland in the United States. The land is rugged, hilly or mountainous. More than 90 percent of the forests have been cleared. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Extreme inequality exists between the urban elite, who live in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, and everyone else.

The people in the countryside are referred to as peyizan yo (the plural form of peyizan), a Creole term for small farmers who produce for their own use and for the market (Smith 2001). Many also participate in small-scale marketing. Most peyizan yo in Haiti own their land. They grow vegetables, fruits (especially mangoes), sugarcane, rice and corn.

Accurate health statistics are not available, but even rough estimates show that Haiti has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS of any country in the region. Medical anthropologist Paul Farmer emphasizes the role of colonialism in the past and global structural inequalities now in causing these high rates (1992).

Colonial plantation owners grew fabulously rich from this island. It produced more wealth for France than all of France’s other colonies combined and more than the 13 colonies in North America produced for Britain. Why is Haiti so poor now?

Colonialism launched environmental degradation by clearing forests. After the revolution, the new citizens carried with them the traumatic history of slavery. Now, neocolonialism and globalization are leaving new scars. For decades, the United States has played, and still plays, a powerful role in supporting conservative political regimes.

In contrast to these structural explanations, some people point to problems with the Haitian people: They cannot work together, and they lack a vision of the future.

Opposed to these views are the findings of Jennie Smith’s ethnographic research in southwestern Haiti, which shed light on the life of peyizan yo and offer perspectives on their development (2001). She found many active social organizations with functions such as labor sharing, to help each member get his or her field planted on time, and cost sharing, to help pay for health care or funerals. Also, peyizan yo have clear opinions about their vision for the future, including hopes for relative economic equality, political leaders with a sense of social service, respe (respect), and access of citizens to basic social services.

The early colonizers did not decide to occupy Haiti because it was poor. It was colonialism and its extractive ways that have made Haiti poor today.


“Culturama: The Peyizan Yo of Haiti,” in Barbara D Miller, Cultural Anthropology, 5th edition, Pearson. 2009, p. 404.

Smith, Jennie M. 2001. When the Hands Are Many: Community Organization and Change in Rural Haiti. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Farmer, Paul, 1992. AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame.

Image: “Haitian Girl” by Flickr user Billtacular, licensed by creative commons.

Thanks to Samuel Martínez of the University of Connecticut for pointing out that the Haitian Creole plural “yo” means that one should not include an article in front of the noun.

29 Responses to “Why is Haiti so poor?”

  1. I have just read your article with great interest. But the point is??. Haiti has just experienced a major catastrophe, with many thousands losing their lives, and all you care about is who is the richer & who is the poorer.

  2. Alan…because a country’s ability to deal with a crisis of such astronomical proportions is limited by whether it’s rich or poor UNICEF, for example, has had trouble delivering desperately needed supplies because what limited infrastructure Haiti did have now is crippled.

  3. Anyone interested in the subject should check out “Collapse” by Jared Diamond which devotes a chapter to exploring the reasons for the relative prosperity of the Domicican Republic compared to Haiti. He shows fairly convincingly that the primary underlying region is the enviornmental degredation of Haiti, especially the massive deforestation which has been carried out in Haiti since the “discovery” of the island.

  4. Mr Spencer,

    Are you really that naive and blind to the connections between colonial history and the severity of the consequences of this earthquake on Haitians?


  5. Thanks for your comment–the post was meant to provide background information only. The context of extreme poverty means that many more people are negatively affected by this catastrophe that would be if it had happened in a rich country where buildings are better built, services more likely to be able to be mobilized, etc.

  6. @Alan Spencer:

    The point is that a developed nation would suffer much less destruction in an earthquake, even of this magnitude.

    So yes, the colonial past and continued rape and negligence of the superpowers du jour is to blame for the excessive death-toll.

  7. Great article. The point is, to even begin to understand how catastrophic this earthquake has been, it’s important to understand the history of the country, where they’ve been, who they are, how they live. They are alone, they have nothing, and now they have even less. That’s the point.

  8. Know your history:


    I bet 90 million Francs could go a long way in Haiti even without inflation. And a few less coups and no brutal repression might have left the Haitians with enough money to deal with this crisis themselves.

  9. Your comment makes it sound like the issues of social inequality caused by colonialism is a non-issue. Of course it is a very important topic to be visiting as the rich elite are very corrupt. I imagine the poor are getting very little of the “aid-money” being sent to them, the rich are getting richer by exploiting our ignorant but noble attempts to patch up the situation. Haiti has had problems for decades and only NOW is anyone raising a finger to help, everyone jump on the bandwagon! It seems no one helps anyone else nowadays unless there is some sort of emotional reward for doing so, which makes me sick if I think about it too much.

  10. In response to the above comment-writer:
    While I’m quite sure that the author does not only care about “who is the richer & who is the poorer” it must absolutely inform decisions about how we can best offer aid to Haiti. Bringing some forms of aid (what we might send to a well developed country) simply would not work for Haiti. Sending hundreds of trucks of food might work for a disaster in another country but without roads and infrastructure they would be useless to Haitians. By using Anthropology to inform relief efforts we can be much more effective.

  11. @Alan: One of the many points for this article is to provide a partial explanation for why there are few/no building codes; why there is an absence of construction equipment such as backhoes, cranes; why the hospitals are broken and powerless. Et cetera.

    What do *you* care about?

  12. Can anyone recommend a good history of Haiti?

  13. [...] to imagine them as controlled by history. A post on Haitian poverty at anthropologyworks concludes with a rather dubious claim: “It was colonialism and its extractive ways that have made Haiti poor [...]

  14. [...] Spanish killed the indigenous population, the Arawaks, in 1492. Most of the current Haitians are descended from African slaves [...]

  15. Here is David Brooks’ view of the cultural causes of poverty in Haiti http://tinyurl.com/ybgqus6. It’s worth a comparison with the following discussion of the underlying role of US imperial culture: http://www.rall.com/rants.html

    what do you think of these two views?

  16. for a history of Haiti see Randall Robinson’s 2008 book, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President

  17. [...] Why is Haiti so poor? Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Previous PostSome Pictures to Accompany my List of a Previous PostBased On The Two Previous Posts, I Think You Can Tell How My Night Was. [...]

  18. [...] wealth has been partitioned off for frolicking tourists. Never mind that these resorts follow the same model of privatization that impoverished the country in the last two [...]

  19. [...] here are a couple of suggested reading items: First, this post by Barbara Miller, a specialist in the anthropology of international development, who asks the [...]

  20. Any country which has low average cognitive ability is poor. Simply put, if it was filled with Japanese it wouldn’t be poor. Gene therapies are required to boost the average cognitive ability.

    ‘The impact of smart fractions, cognitive ability of politicians and average competence of peoples on social development.’

    Talent Development & Excellence. Vol. 1, No. 1, 2009, 3-25.


    “We will also identify the many genes that create physical and mental differences across populations, and we will be able to estimate when those genes arose. Some of those differences probably occurred very recently, within recorded history. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending argued in “The 10,000 Year Explosion” that some human groups experienced a vastly accelerated rate of evolutionary change within the past few thousand years, benefiting from the new genetic diversity created within far larger populations, and in response to the new survival, social and reproductive challenges of agriculture, cities, divisions of labour and social classes. Others did not experience these changes until the past few hundred years when they were subject to contact, colonisation and, all too often, extermination.

    If the shift from GWAS to sequencing studies finds evidence of such politically awkward and morally perplexing facts, we can expect the usual range of ideological reactions, including nationalistic retro-racism from conservatives and outraged denial from blank-slate liberals. The few who really understand the genetics will gain a more enlightened, live-and-let-live recognition of the biodiversity within our extraordinary species—including a clearer view of likely comparative advantages between the world’s different economies.”


  21. I find the following post more enlightening than the previous comment:

  22. [...] See also Why is Haiti Poor? Categories: Latin America Tags: development, Haiti, US military Comments (0) Trackbacks [...]

  23. Blumenthal, what are you trying to say? Are you saying we should genetically engineer Haitians to be smarter so that they can be richer?

    One of the problems is that they don’t have access to education. Even though education is free, school is taught in French, a language most Haitians can’t understand. This perpetuates the poverty.

  24. Hello,

    I am reading different comments, and consequently I remember a chinese
    anecdote:if you like your friend give a fish for present, BUT IF YOU REALLY
    This is my point:take Haiti as we took Puerto Rico an US. territory
    or quasy US. State and makING a model state teach THEM How have to be
    succesful in global economy.
    TO BELIEVE:YES WE CAN !!!!!!!!


  25. ANSWER TO: Blumenthal ! Your comment:” Any country which has low cognitive ability is poor” puts
    a stigma on the Haitian People and unfairly misjudges them in my opinion! For if the Haitian People possessed “low cognitive ability”–as you say they do–then why is it that ex-patriot Haitian communities as numerous as the 200,000 or so ex-patriots living in South Florida demonstrate both a interest in and desire for varied educational venues: Be it the Trade/Technical Route and/or
    more academically demanding two, four and six year college programs–all of which, in turn, demand higher levels of cognitive abilities on the whole! Seems to me, that the degree of quality of the Schooling Systems that one’s country affords one, has everything to do with cognitive ability development and the productive uses a people will have to demonstrate such abilities for the overall good of the Commonweal! –Tom Adams

  26. [...] Anthropologist Barbara Miller’s blog post: Why is Haiti so Poor? [...]

  27. Ms. Miller,
    I am currently enrolled in an Anthropology course that is using your text book, and since I happened to stumble upon this webpage, I wanted to give you a personal thank-you. Not only is the book visually appealing, making me and my fellow students apt to actually study, but it also holds so many interesting “Culturamas” that provided group conversations to last the year! This particular article provoked personal interest, seeing as the past four years I have helped run committies that raised tens of thousands of dollars towards community building funds in Haiti. Every bit help, and to those who read this post, please do what you can to help preserve the country, and in turn preserve a culture.

  28. Jessica, Thanks a lot for your message. I am so happy that you and your fellow students are reading my textbook, learning from it, and being motivated to help Haiti through fundraising to support community building there. Fantastic! Keep up the great work!

  29. [...] [...]

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