Haiti in the Balance

Very few people understand just how bad things were in Haiti before the earthquake.  To appreciate the magnitude and tragedy of the suffering we’re all seeing now, I think it is important to understand the setting of this disaster.

The following are facts I’ve taken mostly from the book Haiti in the Balance, published by the Brookings Institution in 2008.

  • the average Haitian survives on $1 a day; is unemployed and has no prospects of a job; is unable to read, access potable water, or turn on the lights; and will die prematurely, most likely by violence.


  • about 3/4 of the population lives on less than $2 a day.  More than half live on less than $1 a day.  To Haitians in this predicament, this means living, for example, by acquiring a  bag of rice and selling it one cupful at a time to try to make a dollar a day.


  • The annual gross domestic product per capita as of 2007 was $360 to $400, roughly equivalent to the income of Haitians in 1955, when controlling for inflation.


  • The GDP per capita growth rate for Haiti from 1990 to 2005 averaged 0.


  • Half of the population has no access to potable water.


  • One third have no sanitary facilities.


  • Only 10% have electrical service.  In the few areas that have them,  children read their school books under streetlights  because they have no other way to do their homework.


  • Only 5% of Haiti’s roads are in good repair (before the earthquake).


  • One-half of the population is less than 18 years of age.


  • Life expectancy is 53 years.


  • According to some studies, maternal mortality (death during childbirth) is the second leading cause of death in Haiti.  HIV\AIDS is first.


  • Haiti has the highest fertility rate in the Western Hemisphere.


  • More than half the population is illiterate.


  • 80% of the schools are private, and many Haitians cannot afford to attend them–and they are of dismal quality anyway.


  • Less than 1/4 of rural children attend elementary school.


  • Official unemployment rates range from 50% to 70%, but no one really knows how many people are employed or unemployed.


  • 95% of employment in Haiti exists in the underground economy, where workers pay no taxes, receive no employment or unemployment benefits, and engage in illegal activity.


  • About 4/5 of people hold real estate assets without legal title.


  • About 4% of the population owns 66% of the country’s wealth.  Some 10% own literally nothing.


  • Only 28% of Haitians have access to health care.


  • 90% of Haitian children suffer from waterborne illnesses and intestinal parasites (worms).


  • There were an estimated 480,000 orphans in Haiti, before the earthquake.  Some estimates say that number will now triple.


  • There are thousands of Haitian children who are abandoned, and living on the streets.


  • Haiti has the highest infant mortality rate in the Western hemisphere.   An estimated 1 out over every 8 Haitian children die before reaching age 5.


  • 3-5% of the population has HIV/AIDS.  Only an estimated 5-10% of those with HIV/AIDS receive any treatment for it.


  • As many as 300,000 Haitian children are held in virtual slavery, given by their parents (who cannot afford to feed them) to wealthier people, where they are often mistreated and abused.


  • About 2,000 Haitian children per year are smuggled into the Dominican Republic as slave labor or child sex slaves.


  • 1/3 of the women in Haiti have been violently sexually abused, the highest percentage in the hemisphere.


  • Haiti has by far the highest homicide rate in the Western Hemisphere.


  • Haiti is among the worst countries in the world environmentally, ranking 141st out of 155.


  • Haiti is 97% deforested.


  • From 1990 to 1999, Haiti experienced 16 hurricanes, 25 major floods, one earthquake and 7 droughts.


  • In 2004 tropical storm Jeanne destroyed 3.5% of Haiti’s GDP and killed thousands.


  • Virtually all of the services available in Haiti are (now, were) available only in Port-au-Prince.


  • But even in Port-au-Prince, 75% of the people live in shanty towns in extreme poverty.


  • 67% of Haitians say they would leave Haiti if they could.


  • 80% of Haiti’s college educated citizens live outside of Haiti.


  • As of 2006 Haiti ranked in the bottom 2% of all countries on absence of corruption, and 6% on governmental effectiveness.


  • It is estimated that 90% of Haitian police superintendents are involved in drug trafficking.


  • The government has failed to support the investigation and prosecution of major crimes, including drug trafficking, murders and assassinations, political violence and corruption.  The system relies on outdated legal codes and time-consuming, complex procedures.  Court buildings have no windows, running water, bathrooms or electricity, not to mention legal texts, office supplies and telephones.  There are severe personnel shortages in the judicial system.  Proceedings are conducted only in French, yet the lion’s share of the population speaks only Creole, and many who appear before the court are illiterate.  Many judges are not current in Haitian law.  Judges are frequently intimidated by members of gangs, the military, the police and politicians.  Many thrive on bribes in a corrupt system.  Communication is sparse between the courts, police and prosecutors.


  • Despite the pervasiveness of corruption, no Haitian judge has ever been prosecuted for corruption.


  • World Bank surveys in 2005 and 2006 showed that 91% of Haitian households, 87% of enterprise managers and 88% of public officials say corruption in the public sector is a major or serious problem.


  • 70% of public officials say that bribes are a common practice in avoiding taxes or customs duties.


  • In 2006 the Heritage Foundation ranked Haiti 147th out of 166 countries in economic freedom.


  • Haiti is an extremely difficult place to do business.  On average in takes 203 days to start a business, 683 days to register a property, and five years to purchase government land.  The World Bank ranks Haiti 142 out of 175 countries in investment protection.


  • Virtually from its colonization to the present day, Haiti has been plagued by political instability, violence, tyranny, corruption,  and autocracy, not to mention foreign and internal exploitation–including slavery–of its population and, not surprisingly, extreme poverty.  A small aristocratic elite has always controlled the country or, more accurately, its political leadership, regardless of the political regime in power.  Haiti exists to fulfill the needs of this elite–the “predatory state.”


  • Depending on how one classifies them, there have been 55 “presidents” in Haiti since 1804 when it gained its independence.  Of these, three were assassinated or executed, seven died in office (one by suicide) and 23 were overthrown by the military or paramilitary groups.  Two were overthrown twice.  Only 9 completed full presidential terms.  Thirty one held office for two years or less.  Twice a military junta ruled without a president.  Nearly all presidents were military officers or were closely affiliated with the military.  Throughout Haiti’s history, many presidents have attempted to becom rulers for life.  Every president has exploited Haiti’s impoverished people and its resources, for political gain, personal aggrandizement, or both.  There have been very few months in its history when Haiti went without a revolt, uprisings, riots, political murders or mass killings.  During the 20th century the U.S. compelled five presidents to leave office.


  • The United States has played a determining role in Haiti, dispatching the Navy or Marines dozens of times to restore order, protect Americans and their business interests or meddle in political affairs. The United States occupied the country from 1915 to 1934.


  • Over the decade between 1998 and 2007, Haiti received about $3.5 billion in foreign assistance and $5 billion to $7 billion in remittances, not to mention billions in military interventions and drug interdictions–but had little to show for the effort.


  • Haiti has the lowest ratio of physicians to population, by far, of any country in the Western Hemisphere.  35% of Haitian physicians live outside of Haiti.

I could go on and on, but that should be sufficient to make the point.  The earthquake, as tragic and heartbreaking as it is, is like a punch delivered to a person already on his knees.

Despite all these depressing statistics, the situation in Haiti is not hopeless.  Far from it.

As I’ve pointed out in several prior posts, when Haitians have access to the basics of life–clean water, food, health care, shelter, loving families–they excel.  That is why the Hope for Haiti Children’s Center (Danita’s Children) in Ouanaminthe seems like such an oasis in that desert of misery.  The kids there are living proof of the potential of Haiti.

In the future I’ll blog about my thoughts on the future of Haiti.  It will be a long, hard climb.  But as we watch the struggle, we need to keep in mind where the climb began.

Love Wins