Why is Haiti So Poor?

Peter Turchin


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In a previous blog I asked, why is Haiti a failed state? A related question is, why is Haiti so poor? It’s the poorest state in the Western Hemisphere.

These two questions are clearly related, although the correlation between strong polity and strong economy is not perfect. There are wealthy countries whose central governments are crumbling (e.g., Belgium). It’s harder to think of a strong state that is also poor, but probably the best current example is North Korea (unless it suddenly crumbles in the next few years as some predict).

Despite these examples, generally speaking, if population of a country is capable of cooperation on a large enough scale to maintain a reasonably effective state, they typically are also capable of organizing productive economies. Ayn Rand acolytes would object that cooperation has nothing to do with a successful economy – it’s really the John Galts who create wealth, not ‘society.’ But the empirical evidence is against this view. For example, several economic papers have published statistical analyses that support the hypothesis of correlation between strong states and strong economies. One particularly interesting article by Valerie Bockstette and coworkers (“State and Markets: The Advantage of an Early Start”) shows that state antiquity (that is, how long ago a country acquired a state) is strongly correlated with the rate of economic growth between 1960 and 1995.

It is quite likely, then, that Haiti’s poverty and its lack of an effective state have the same causes if one looks deep enough. So, why is Haiti so poor?

There are many ways to approach this question, but the one I find the most appealing is the comparative approach. It would be better (from the science point of view) if we could test various hypotheses explaining Haitian poverty experimentally, an approach that has been used very effectively in natural sciences. However, an experimental approach practiced at the scale of whole societies is both unethical and impractical. What we can do is something that historical natural sciences (such as astrophysics, geology, and evolution) call the ‘natural experiment.’

Jared Diamond and economist James Robinson recently edited a selection of essays with the title, Natural Experiments of History. One of the chapters there, written by Diamond, has a direct bearing on the issue of Haiti. Diamond starts by making the observation that Haiti occupies only a part (the western half) of the island Hispaniola. The second country on Hispaniola is the Dominican Republic. Whereas Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas, the Dominican Republic is much better off, with a GDP per capita six times that of Haiti (the book was published in 2010, and now the difference is probably even greater). Furthermore, the Dominican Republic has a reasonably well functioning and democratic state. And it still retains its forests.


A satellite image of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic shows a stark difference in the amount of forest cover. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center (image from Seed)

What may account for this stark contrast? Diamond offers three possible explanations. First, eastern Hispaniola gets more rain, and this helped the Dominican Republic to preserve its forests and have more productive agriculture. Second, when the western part of the island (which became Haiti) was annexed by France, they imported large numbers of African slaves and established highly lucrative plantations. Eventually 85 percent of the population on the French half were slaves, while on the Spanish side (which became the Dominican Republic) slaves were only 10-15 percent of the population. Third, Diamond discusses the different policies pursued by the dictators of Haiti (‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier) and the Dominican Republic (Rafael Trujillo).

We cannot tell which of these possible explanations (or if more than one then in what combination) explains the diverging trajectories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Additionally, there are many other ways in which the two halves of Hispaniola differ. So a pairwise comparison is a good starting point, but we really need to do many such comparisons if we want to test general hypotheses explaining why some nations are wealthy and others poor (and why some have effective states, while others fail).

Several chapters in Natural Experiments in History go beyond pairwise comparisons. One particularly interesting study is the one by Nathan Nunn, who shows that the more an African country suffered from slave-raiding in the 15th – 18th centuries, the poorer it is today. The analysis by Daron Acemoglu and coworkers indicates that regions that were occupied by French armies during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars subsequently had better economic growth. So the French influence is not always bad… (By the way, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson recently published their book, Why Nations Fail, which got a lot of good press, so I expect I will be blogging about it – after I get around to finally reading it).

I am also reminded of an excellent book by Robert Putnam on the effectiveness of regional governments in Italy (which he traces to the vibrancy of civic life, or lack of it, in Italian city states 500 years ago). In short, the comparative approach has been very productive in testing historical explanations. Scientific history is not science fiction.

We can also do better than we have so far. What limits our ability to test historical theories is a lack of good databases. But that is something that is changing (and partly as a result of our own efforts, as I wrote in my recent blogs).

One interesting generalization that seems to arise when many such analyses are considered as a whole, is the critical – and highly negative – effect of slavery. We saw that Haiti had a much larger slave population than the Dominican Republic. Those African countries that were raided for slaves more severely centuries ago, have stunted economies today. Northern Italian communities have much greater civic spirit and more productive economies than their Southern Italian counterparts. As I have argued in my books, this difference may date back to the Roman Empire, when southern Italy was all divided into latifundia worked by slaves, while northern Italy retained a robust population of small landowners/farmers. Finally, some political scientists (including Robert Putnam) have linked lower levels of social capital in southern United States to the South’s ‘peculiar institution.’


The Atlantic Slave Trade and Life in the Americas. James S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr. (c) 2006 Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and University of Virginia

Why should slavery have such long-lasting effects on economic and civic development? Cultural multilevel selection theory has an answer. Slavery, after all, is one of the most severe forms of inequality. Extreme inequality is highly corrosive of cooperation. And cooperation is a necessary basis of both productive economies and strong states.

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Looking at a list of countries by GDP, it appears that Haiti is not particularly bad for a country populated by Africans with no significant admixture from other peoples. According to World Bank statistics, there are 15 countries worse off than Haiti (all in sub-Saharan Africa, of course).

It would be more interesting to look at an true outlier like Botswana, which is less dysfunctional than other African countries.

Peter Turchin

Well, as I said in th blog, Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. What year are those data? Do they reflect the effect of the earthquake?

Incidentally, I have been to Botswana. Lovely country. As to investigating why Botswana is better off than other countries in Africa, this goes to the heart of the comparative approach. But also why is Barbados better off than Jamaica? Why did Iceland solve its banking problem and Greece is a basket case? How did initially impoverished Norway become a country with one of the best quality of life? Why is Italy dealing with the crisis in a much more effective way than Spain? All of those are natural experiments and they offer a way to test historical theories.

Lawrence T.

“Those African countries that were raided for slaves more severely centuries ago, have stunted economies today.”

But could that just be a coincidence? The countries in question are all in West Africa, right? There be climatic/historical/sociological factors that are unrelated to slavery that have affected their development. For example, most West African countries were colonized by France, which generally has retained close ties with the post-colonial governments, which have often been undemocratic. That is probably a larger issue than the fact that 200 years ago, chieftains here sold slaves from rival tribes to Europeans. (To say that these countries were “raided for slaves” by Europeans is not very accurate; local rulers fully participated in the trade.)

Lawrence T.

Anyway, regarding the initial topic, I definitely think slavery was a factor, and even moreso, the lack of “reconstruction” following slavery. Haitians went straight from slavery to independence. There was no period of rebuilding of colonial society following emancipation. Had it remained under French rule, schools, hospitals and the like would have been built for the ex-slaves to allow them to integrate into society, as occurred in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Instead, Haiti suddenly gained independence, and in a violent manner that drove nearly all its educated citizens to flee the country. The country simply was not prepared to govern itself. I don’t mean that to sound offensive; it was against the law to educate slaves, so it should be no surprise that a nation comprised almost entirely of freed slaves would have very low educational standards.


Most of Haiti’s problems are because of the republic’s early suppression by most of europe especialy France. the USA also took part. Haiti was 25% of France wealth and the cash didn’t suddenly disappear with the rule of black people; it was crushed by racist imperial nations through taxes, embargo’s, threats, refusing to trades, invasions and sponsoring coups. The deforestation started with France for furniture and was continued by the Haitians. Haiti was known for being a agricultural economy the U.S. gave some bad advice rather intentional or not that crushed the sector. Haiti is also a demonized country. No not because of voodoo because even when Haiti was doing better than the majority of countries in the regions Europe and the U.S told everyone it was the worst place on earth. That was a way to keep the Image of the country down so tourist would not visit And it “proved” why they should of stayed with France. However, anyone who understand what France was doing to the slave that became the Haitians you would understand why Haitian had to revolt. Haiti was known as the most brutal colony. Even today the written truth about Haiti is rarely found. Haiti is trying to come up from the ashes but faces internal corruptions.


100% agree. Well said.

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