Geopolitical speculations about Haiti

by on January 14, 2010 at 5:16 am in Current Affairs, Economics, Political Science | Permalink

Haiti is about the size of Maryland and a big chunk of the population lives in or near Port-Au-Prince, maybe a third of the total, depending on what you count as a suburb.  So the collapse of Port-Au-Prince is a big, big deal for the country as a whole.  It's a dominant city for Haiti.  Plus Jacmel seems to be leveled.  From the reports I have seen, my tentative conclusion is that the country as a whole is currently below the subsistence level and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  Hundreds of thousands of people have died, the U.N. Mission has collapsed, the government is not working (was it ever?), and hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of people are living in the streets without reliable food or water supplies.  The hospitals and schools have collapsed.  The airport is shut down.  The port is very badly damaged.  The Haitian Penitentiary has collapsed and the inmates — tough guys most of them – are running free for the foreseeable future.  There is no viable police force or army.

In other words, it's not just a matter of offering extra food aid for two or three years.

Very rapidly, President Obama needs to come to terms with the idea that the country of Haiti, as we knew it, probably does not exist any more. 

In what sense does Haiti still have a government?  How bad will it have to get before the U.N. or U.S. moves in and simply governs the place?  How long will this governance last?  What will happen to Haiti as a route for the drug trade, the dominant development in the country's economy over the last fifteen years?  What does the new structure of interest groups look like, say five years from now?

Is there any scenario in which the survivors, twenty years from now, are better off, compared to the quake never having taken place?

Millian January 14, 2010 at 6:52 am

If they get to emigrate to rich countries when they would not otherwise have done so, then they might have a higher lifetime income. There is probably a sense in which an Irish emigrant to America during the Great Famine ended up better-off. However, the human and cultural laceration that a country would suffer after losing so many people suggests that the survivors are already starting out from a lower quality of life before considering positive or negative economic effects.

jfgbdrj January 14, 2010 at 7:40 am

no insurgency? what makes you so sure?

Walter McGrain January 14, 2010 at 8:19 am

It will be interesting to see what happens when the inevitable waves of Haitian boat people begin their migration.

Millian January 14, 2010 at 8:45 am

gwern, the Black Death is only relevant if you believe that Haitian aggregate output had diminishing returns to scale. It’s believable for a medieval agrarian economy, but maybe not for a modern Third World country.

Ken Rhodes January 14, 2010 at 8:51 am

David wrote: >>…it’ll probably be easier and cheaper to annex and administer Haiti as a US territory or a US state. … I doubt that this has political viability.>>

Correct, for sure, about the political viability. I wonder, David, whether annexation by The Dominican Republic is more practical, and more likely.

In such a circumstance, the dollar cost of an infusion of aid to the consolidated “Nation of Hispaniola” would be a small hiccup in our US budget, would probably be greeted with enthusiasm by both our political parties, would be widely hailed by our people as “nation building the right way,” and would surely be in our best interest geopolitically.

Ken Rhodes January 14, 2010 at 8:59 am

>>Is there any scenario in which the survivors, twenty years from now, are better off, compared to the quake never having taken place?>>

In an interview with George Stephanopolous this morning, the Haitian Ambassador answered a similar quesion. Stephanopolous asked whether there could be an upside to this catastrophe. The Ambassador replied Yes, but only if it results in the decentralization of Port-au-Prince over a much wider geographic area, with modern infrastructure.

He said that the city was built two centuries ago to support a population of 20-40,000 inhabitants, and the infrastructure was never upgraded, so the current population of about two million, concentrated in such a small area, was a disaster waiting to happen. If we rebuild in the same area, he said, we will simply be resetting the clock to start waiting for the next disaster.

spencer January 14, 2010 at 9:53 am

Remember, Hatti was occupied by the US Marine Corp from roughly 1918 to 1934. This is off the top of my head and
the dates may not be exactly right.

B.B. January 14, 2010 at 10:02 am

Somebody needs to explain why Haiti was not like Hong Kong. Tropical climate, on the sea, small, few natural resources, colonial history.

Sachs says landlocked countries are poor, but Haiti has an extensive coastline. Sachs says countries far from big markets are poor, but Haiti (like Cuba) is next door to the world’s biggest market.

If the issue was British vs. French colonialization, then all Haiti needs is Anglo-Saxon institutions. Or is it racial? Or is the legacy of slavery? In the latter, does that mean that former slaves are incapable of effective self-government?

We can’t end poverty until we have an explanation for why some countries are poor and others not.

Ed B. January 14, 2010 at 10:29 am

Haiti is a sovereign country founded in a revolution against imperialist slaveowners. Many of its problems have come from the refusal of nations ruled by slaveowners and their descendants to accept that Haitians are autonomous human beings with the capacity to govern themselves. Unfortunately that same refusal to accept is running rampant in this comment thread.

That at times Haitians have governed very badly does not denude them of that right, any more than the occasional election of an idiot-in-chief surrenders Americans’ right to self-government. There should be no repetition of the U.S. 1915-1934 invasion and occupation. The commenter who suggested that the Dominican Republic should govern Haiti should read about the history between the two nations, which includes the genocide of Haitian migrant workers during the 1930s.

What Haiti needs is massive short-term aid, massive infrastructure rebuilding, the commitment by the UN to protect the continued functioning of a democratic government, and the commitment of wealthy nations to accept significant numbers of Haitian immigrants so that pressure on both the ecosystem and the human structures of society can be relieved. Only then will Haiti be able to begin to recover from 500 years of repeated devastation.

Ed January 14, 2010 at 10:31 am

“But it won’t be a 51st state, or even Puerto Rico.”

Why can’t Haiti be another Puerto Rico? It has a similar sized population (maybe 2x the population of Puerto Rico). The US is already pretty entangled with the country and has been since the 1918-34 occupation. I realize the subsidies and possibility of Haitians immigrating to the mainland will be controversial, but we will probably get that anyway, with disaster relief and a refugee crisis.

If the devestation is really as extensive as the initial reports indicate, the best medium solution for the country would by US Commonwealth status but with no US Citizenship for Haitians (which would take care of the immigration objection). I’m not too worried about eventual statehood, Puerto Rico still isn’t a state after 112 years and Haiti is now in worse condition than Puerto Rico has ever been.

Or maybe Canada will agree to absorb Haiti, which is probably even a better solution because of the language compatibility.

The only alternative would be a de jure or de facto UN or OAS protectorate. I think the world has too many shadow states -states with flags, seats at the UN, and bureaucrats, but no real tax base and no ability to police much of their claimed territory.

Joe January 14, 2010 at 11:04 am

I had the exact same thought about Paul Romer as John B. Chilton when I read that Haiti had more or less collapsed. As mentioned on the blog earlier, Jared Diamond’s work on Haiti v. the Dominican suggests that their ecology may make this a little difficult to just change the rules and fix it. However, I would personally feel better if development aid was distributed with the condition of trying some of Paul Romer’s rules. He has made a persuasive argument.

Colorado January 14, 2010 at 11:58 am

For all the libertarians here, you sure call for a government solution quickly. And then you go shopping around for the government you think would be least likely to screw it up. (The Canada suggestion seems interesting; why don’t we just fund them.) As for a 20 yr prognosis, they will surely be better off. How could they go down from here? To help Romer out, I suggest Dr Paul Farmer. Link – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Farmer

Peter January 14, 2010 at 12:31 pm

As an intellectual exercise: if you believe Greg Clark’s “A Farewell To Alms” a fall in population actually raises living standards for a while for a society operating at the malthusian subsistence limit. Income per person almost doubled in England for a hundred years after the plague killed a big chunk of the population.

Even if the highest death toll estimates of 100,000 are correct, it would only be about 1% of Haiti’s population. Surely not enough to have a Clark effect even if his theory is correct.

Taeyoung January 14, 2010 at 1:18 pm

So its not that sovereignty isn’t desirable for the country, it may not be possible in a manner which isn’t a sham.

Yes, but in what way has Haiti been sovereign for the past century? Back in the 1990s, Clinton threatened to invade the country unless Raoul Cedras was removed from power. Cedras duly ceded power and we installed Aristide in his stead, backed by US military peacekeepers. Then in the 2000s, France, Canada, and the Bush Administration cooperated in forcing his removal from power, in conjunction with a 2004 rebellion that left, as I understand it, UN forces in effective control of the country. That’s not particularly “sovereign.”

ToriAdams January 14, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Unless there is land reform there will be no change — land reform is the basis for the solution in Haitti. Strong governance needs to be implemented — probably from a outside source. Haitti is a failed state and one that will take tremendous investment and political will to solve. I see neither coming from the US — we simple lack the political will to be a long term imperialist power. The UN isn’t there yet and China or Europe won’t/can’t extend themselves to deal with this. There will be a patch up, something will be fixed up and then back to business as usual

KT January 14, 2010 at 2:59 pm

In his speech, the president specifically called out the easy answer of a few years of extra aid as not nearly enough. It doesn’t seem like he wants to leave it at that, at least from what he has said himself.

MikeDC January 14, 2010 at 3:27 pm

OK, step one is to say that Haiti has been poor for the reasons that most countries remain poor. I mean, the qualifications for growth aren’t a mystery, they’re just hard to do.
1. To be wealthy, you need security. Haiti has traditionally been a violent place where people can’t be secure in their property in just the basic sense.
2. To be wealthy, you need the ability and incentive to go out and work. Haiti has a highly state influenced economy and a history of requiring significant patronage and confiscating wealth from political opponents.
3. To be wealthy, you need to have knowledge, some basic level of education. In addition to a political and economic infrastructure that discouraged wealth creation, the basic educational system in Haiti is by far the worst in the hemisphere. Lots of folks can’t read, and not just older folks.

In short, our basic endogenous growth theory has these as foundations. To grow, these are the requirements and you’ve almost never had them in Haiti.

So how do you take 10M poor, uneducated people, mostly accustomed to doing things the wrong way, and get them on the right track?

1. Offer and encourage their free immigration to places with better infrastructure. Encourage a disaspora. A few poorly educated people added to any society won’t hurt it. As a practical matter, the real losers here would be immigrants from other poor countries, if developed nations that could reasonably be expected to absorb more Haitians without major turmoil absorbed more Haitians and fewer, say, Ethiopians. But yeah, as a goal, suppose the US, Europe, China, and the rest of the world absorbed 5M of Haiti’s 10M people. That’d make the problem of Haiti itself more tractable.

2. I’m pretty certain the Dominicans don’t want to be responsible for Haiti any more than we do. What benefit accrues to the people/government that takes over? There’s a lot of downside and if there’s an upside to be seen into developing Haiti into a wealthy place, it’s generations in the future. So what we’ll probably get is more of the “international soup kitchen” approach to the problem where we distribute aid to avoid really embarrassing mass starvation, but otherwise leave it to the corrupt, poorly educated, and the occasionally truly benevolent folks to try and build the country. But again, since most of the folks that will actually be administering things are trained into non-wealth creating ways of administration, it basically remains a trainwreck unless some singular piece of luck comes along. In the meantime, anyone who gets wealthy enough to have the means, and has a clue, flees.

No Way January 14, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Everytime a country is weak, the americans come and try to impose their culture… but guess what? Haiti already has a VERY RICH culture, the US are NOT the government! They can help but they cannot decide for the Haitian government!

I’m an American and I don’t want to impose anything on Haiti other than a blockade to make sure that we don’t get an invasion of boat people.

Valentine Joseph January 14, 2010 at 4:19 pm

No Way, you are one piece of work. Your nativism is showing and its despicable

Rick January 14, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Obama should write a check for ten billion, give it to the U.N. General Assembly and let them deal with the situation — with a P.S. of ‘The U.S.A. is not longer in the “save the world” business.

sgi January 14, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Haitian immigrants are a significant source of crime in Canada and the US so I don’t think that accepting large numbers of Haitians as refugees into either country is going to fly. At least it won’t with this Canadian.

Aid and professional administration of the country and it’s democratic institutions are paramount probably for the long term.

zbicyclist January 14, 2010 at 5:35 pm

What miracles of improvement did the American occupation between WW1 and WW2 accomplish?

MadMichaelJohn January 14, 2010 at 7:02 pm

A. Invite France to deport ALL of their muslims and replace them with catholic Haitians. Can’t be too much worse that what they have going now. France, and Haiti.
B. Annex Haiti as French Puerto Rico ( or Quebec Puerto Rico) , and no emigration with out literacy. If they want to leave, then they must be literate. Build 10,000 Peace Corp schools and staff them for 15 years or 25 years. Terrace the hills for farming and to reduce erosion, by day, with adult labor and send them to the schools half “days”, at night. Build roads, and tourist traps on all the good beaches. When literacy hits 90-95% of those over 14, referendum every 2 years till you get the same result 3 times in a row.

anonymous January 14, 2010 at 7:54 pm


Is there any scenario in which the survivors, twenty years from now, are better off, compared to the quake never having taken place?

Sure, why not? Arguably, part of the reason Britain stumbled so badly in the post-war decades was that not enough of its existing outdated factories and infrastructure were bombed in WWII.

MarkJ January 14, 2010 at 9:10 pm

“If it rolls that way, it’ll probably be easier and cheaper to annex and administer Haiti as a US territory or a US state. If. I doubt that this has political viability.”

Indeed, there ain’t a chance in hell of a “State of Haiti.” Do the think the GOP, understandably, would countenance the creation of a Haitian “state” that will almost inevitably elect an all-Democrat congressional delegation? Imagine two more Donk senators and as many as 14 more Donk representatives (many of them flat-out Marxists). Any attempt to add Haiti as the 51st state would be met by armed resistance–not by Haitians but, rather, by pissed-off Americans.

I daresay Haitian statehood would go over like a fart in church, n’est-ce pas?

Bob Morris January 14, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Hey, do Haitians get any say in whether we take over their country? Judging from some of the comments here, apparently not. Clearly, we know what’s best for them.

That’s worked out really well in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, hasn’t it?

Randy Martin January 14, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Send Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, and Chris Dodd over there. It might not help the Haitians but it would sure mak the U.S. a nicer place.

David Tomlin January 15, 2010 at 12:19 am

Ed B.:

Haitians are autonomous human beings with the capacity to govern themselves. . . . What Haiti needs is . . . the commitment by the UN to protect the continued functioning of a democratic government . . .

Am I the only one who sees an inconsistency?

sgi January 15, 2010 at 2:34 am

According to an article on Alert Net written just last September, Haiti was the recipient of 4 BILLION in aid between 1990 and 2003.

Haiti is also the THIRD most corrupt nation on earth.

It’s past time for respecting their status as a sovereign country and people when they accept so much aid and have very little to show for it. Time for the world to get tough with countries like this.

Ronald Rollerderby January 15, 2010 at 6:01 am

I think it is overly imperialistic to suggest that some country ruled by Caucasians should take over Haiti. How about having a vote at the United Nations and letting Haiti be put under a provisional “People’s Republic of China” administration?? I would guess that the local Haitian populace would not (initially anyway) be overly inconvenienced by censorship of the media, including TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, internet, etc.

Chinese schools could be established, the capital city rebuilt with a huge harbor, and export processing zones built one by one. No doubt there would be no shortage of available labor to man the factories in these zones, and hourly wages could be kept to a minimum. A Chinese military governor could be appointed, and labor camps for those who were unwilling to follow the new government line could be set up (the PRC has much experience in this area) …. however the UN would require that the locals be taught “marketable skills.”

(Adam Smith’s economic theory of the “invisible hand” doesn’t work too well in these impoverished nations, it is much more feasible to build up “work corps” in the short term.”

Yes, indeed this could be a blessing in disguise. Of course, it would be mandated that no missiles be put on Haitian soil, lest we have a repeat of the Cuban missile crisis.

Sam Bauers January 15, 2010 at 6:33 am

Haiti is a sovereign country founded in a revolution…

Thank you for your comment, saved me writing something in a similar vein, except shorter and less informative.

Don January 15, 2010 at 9:59 am

Lay off the US!

The US occupation brought Haiti hundreds of miles of roads, sewers, rail, and electricity. The US brought Haiti into the 20th century and laid the foundations for potential prosperity. It’s not our fault Haiti squandered this opportunity. The Dominican Republic “suffered” from similar US interventions over the last hundred years and has prospered.

And before the US is damned for intervening in the first place: the Germans were trying to coup the Haitian government. A handful of Germans bought up all the land in Haiti and incited 6 coups between 1911 and 1915. Obviously, the Germans would have been incapable of maintain a puppet Haiti during the 1920s and 30s. A “free” Haiti was made impossible. The alternative to US intervention would have left the country broken and in civil war and without 20 years worth of American infrastructure investments.

ad January 15, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Haiti is a sovereign country founded in a revolution against imperialist slaveowners. Many of its problems have come from the refusal of nations ruled by slaveowners and their descendants to accept that Haitians are autonomous human beings with the capacity to govern themselves.

Other countries founded by imperialist slaveowners:

Bermuda: GDP per capita (PPP) $91,477

Bahamas: GDP per capita (PPP) PPP $27,735

Barbados: GDP per capita (PPP) $13,314

Jamaica: GDP per capita (PPP) $8,967

Haiti GDP per capita (PPP) $1,317

(All figures taken from Wikipedia)

I should think that Haiti has had at least as much power to govern itself as the countries I have compared it with.

And if either the US or the UN commits “to protect the continued functioning of a democratic government† in Haiti, they would certainly not be trusting the Haitians to govern themselves.

Implicitly, they would be protecting the Haitians from themselves.

Jack of all Trades January 15, 2010 at 7:09 pm
ad January 17, 2010 at 9:28 am

No Way, the figures were the best I could find at the spur of the moment. If you have better ones, give them.

Or would you be happier if I just asserted them very firmly, which seems to be the usual way of backing a factual statement on a blog comment.

z January 18, 2010 at 6:00 am

“I bet for the bottom 10%, [this earthquake] is a net good.”

I’ve seen some appalling idiocy in my short life, but that takes the biscuit.

jace September 17, 2010 at 5:41 am

The little description they give of those born on this date goes something like this:
Devoted. Persistent. Hp Pavilion DV5000 Adapter Intense.
Having a “royal” nature, I need to be treated with respect (Well, okay, I’ll take that one).
I function best when I’m in leadership (NOT).hp dv6700 adapter
I’m not one to follow someone else’s drum beat (agree).
I’m loyal & committed and my influence is felt when I believe in something….
and so on.

I’ll take all the descriptives with a grain of Hp DV7 ac Adapter — but it IS very fun to play on this site with
the birthdays of your friends and family to see if their color matches what they
have always gravitated toward.

Mrs. Jones November 19, 2010 at 8:09 am

The solution is so simple its not even funny. Why can’t the government use cruise ships to temporarily transport, house and feed these people, and provide them with clean water, while they rebuild Haiti? What is the problem? Where are the billions of dollars, almost 10 billion dollars, that the U.S. gave to Haiti for rebuilding? Who is overseeing that money? What they need now is not money. It’s actual supplies. Haiti now blames the UN for bringing in cholera. That is not the case. There’s bound to be an outbreak anywhere there isn’t enough clean water. These people need care packages – water bottles, blankets, packaged foods, soap, toilet paper, diapers, formula…little things for now. It looks like another Hurricane Katrina. If the people of Haiti are attacking those aiding them, give them a warning to step back. Haitian people have always been known for their strength, pride, resiliency, but they can also be confrontational. Anyway get some ships, transport people by jeeps or golf carts. It can be done. It’s just that government officials are possibly stealing the money.

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