Haiti is a country of great social and economic potential. Many of Haiti’s hardworking and industrious citizens are eager to join the global economy. But the reality for most Haitians today is that only about a quarter of its 10 million inhabitants have access to formal education and a steady income. The other 75 percent are mired in poverty, struggling to survive.
These circumstances make them vulnerable to poor health and nutrition, social and economic exploitation, corruption and violence, failing infrastructure, deforestation, and other forms of eanvironmental destruction which, in turn, make the country even more susceptible to the devastating impacts of annual natural disasters.
Furthermore, instead of feeding itself and the world from fertile Caribbean soils, Haiti imports 70 percent of its basic food staples, leaving it heavily dependent on foreign aid and perpetuating the unfortunate title of “poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.”
Haiti is so much more than that. Its people have always been proud, innovative and fiercely resilient. In fact, those attributes won them independence in 1804 during a successful slave revolt against their French colonizers. That revolution made Haiti the world’s first independent black republic.
But challenging the colonial world order came with dire consequences that still impact Haiti’s development today. In 1825, under the threat of invading Haiti again, the French colonial powers forced Haiti to pay a “restitution” to the former slave owners’ it had overthrown. Given the implications that Haitian independence could have on other countries and colonies developing on slave labor, nations such as the United States sided with France, and together they declared an embargo on the newly independent Haiti that lasted 50 years and cost Haiti the equivalent of $21 billion in today’s dollars. Paying this egregious “debt,” and facing the embargo, depleted Haiti’s economy and stunted its growth.
By the turn of the last century, Haiti had become so unstable that it was changing presidents nearly every year. Fearing regional instability could lead to an advancement of German imperialism, the United States invaded Haiti in 1915 and occupied it until 1934. This further undermined its development and pressured the country into more international loans for development – or mere survival.
Since the early eighties, the United States has forced Haiti to lower its import tariffs on food enabling US rice companies, which benefit from subsidies, to take over the Haitian market. This killed the country’s entire rice production, a staple of Haitians’ diet, creating irreparable income losses for the poorest Haitian farmers and contributing to hunger and malnutrition.
Foreign interventions of this nature have persisted for decades, making it nearly impossible for Haiti to sustain itself without some form of humanitarian aid. One of the latest examples took place in the 1990s after the overthrow of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The U.S. government wanted to punish coup leaders with an embargo, but the Haitian people were the ones who most suffered.
These nefarious international interventions, as well as domestic corruption scandals, poor governance and rural underdevelopment have all led to the country’s disastrous economic and social development.
Following the immense devastation of the 2010 earthquake, some big multilateral donors sought to make amends by turning old loans into grants. This may be a step in the right direction, but undoing the deeply entrenched problems created by misguided internal and external policies and actions require drastically different development approaches. For one, they must benefit Haitians from all socio-economic levels and promote their well-being and agency. They must emphasize the growth of the middle class, and a robust rural development through a true decentralization of economic hubs and investments.
Furthermore, that process should also remind the world of Haiti’s tremendous assets: its hospitality, delicious cuisine, many beautiful mountains, beaches, waterfalls, and historical monuments, as well as a rich artistic and cultural life. These features coupled with a vigorous and comprehensive program for improving the country’s security, infrastructure, governance, agricultural production and technological advances can spur high economic growth.
In fact, there are already some highly successful foreign and Haitian companies working in Haiti: MSC, a massive size hardware, tools, construction and renovation material business; Giant, a chain of high-end supermarkets and home supplies stores; Digicel, a national mobile telecommunications network, part of the pan-Caribbean Digicel Group; Telecom, a public / private partnership between the Haitian government and Viettel, a Vietnamese company; and the rum Barbencourt, one of the best there is. Last but not least, Haiti is the world’s number one exporter of vetiver essential oil, prized by the high-end perfume industry.
Given Haiti’s current needs, we chose to support rural development to increase the country’s food production and security. We do so by promoting the establishment of agricultural cooperatives which is one of the most effective ways to strengthen small-scale subsistence farming families living in absolute poverty. They are the heart and soul of Haiti’s agricultural sector – a sector which represents 25% of the country’s GDP.
Our pilot program is in the Commune of Ganthier where we train farmers in building their own cooperative to increase their capacity, expand their markets and become stronger and more autonomous as individuals and as a community.