So Many “Why” Questions Regarding Haiti

2 comments Written on March 26th, 2010     
Filed under: Disaster Relief
Why is Haiti so poor?  Why were there so many people crowded into Port au Prince in makeshift homes built on top of each other at the time of the earthquake?  Why is the government of Haiti so unstable? Why is there so little agricultural production in the country once known as “The Jewel of the Antilles”?

Depending on who you listen to the answers to these questions vary greatly.  Some would explain it all away by simply saying that Haiti is a cursed country and there is nothing that can be done to change things. Some blame corrupt and ineffective leadership.  Others say that Haitians need to practice birth control. Some say that Haiti is a backward country that needs more education and better technology.

Except for the first explanation about Haiti being a cursed country, I believe there is a bit of truth in the rest of the explanations. However since the earthquake I have discovered far better explanations from the Haitians themselves.

Haiti gained its independence in 1804 after a bloody revolution against the French. The indigenous population had long since been wiped out by the conquests and diseases of the Spanish and the French, leaving only the slaves that had been brought from Africa.  Haiti became the first black republic in the western hemisphere.  European countries and the US refused to recognize the upstart black republic of former slaves and imposed trade embargos. The French finally recognized Haiti’s independence and opened trade when Haiti agreed to pay France 150 million Francs as reparations from the revolution.  France later reduced the debt, but even so it took Haiti nearly 100 years to pay it off.  The US finally recognized and began trading with Haiti in the 1860’s after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Beginning in 1957 “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son “Baby Doc” ruled Haiti as corrupt dictators for about thirty years. One reason they were able to remain in power was that they had the backing of the US government which saw them as reliable anti-communists.

In recent decades highly subsidized US rice and other agricultural products have flooded the Haitian markets putting local farmers out of business. These farmers had no choice but to migrate to Port au Prince in order to seek ways to find a livelihood. This brought about the overpopulation of the city at the time of the earthquake on January 12.  Since the earthquake a reverse migration has begun with nearly a million Haitians returning to the countryside looking for a means to survive.

The issues in Haiti are complex and there are no easy answers. Responsibility for the current situation in Haiti lies with the Haitians themselves as well as with western nations.  A lot of well meaning outsiders see Haitians as poor people who have dug themselves into a deep hole of poverty, debt, and corruption, and therefore they need our help to get them out of the hole. However let us be careful not to become like those to whom John Milton referred to when he wrote, “they who have put out the people’s eyes, reproach them of their blindness.”

After my recent trip to Haiti I am more convinced than ever that if we desire to work with Haitians in relief, recovery, and long term development, we need to do so with genuine humility and with respect for the Haitian people.  Almost all agree that Haiti needs to be rebuilt in every sense of the word. However we as outsiders will do great harm if we think that we should rebuild for the Haitians. It is the Haitians themselves who should take the lead in the rebuilding of Haiti, and we outsiders should seek ways that we can appropriately work together with them as we move forward.

Dave Husby

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2 comments “So Many “Why” Questions Regarding Haiti”

Dave, short history lesson and explanation of the situation in Haiiti. Very helpful.

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We are a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your web site provided us with useful information to work on. You’ve performed an impressive process and our whole community shall be thankful to you.

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