Getting Development Right in Haiti

John Norris digs at the roots of Haiti’s longstanding poverty to see how the United States and international community can help create positive change in the country.

Children suffering cholera symptoms receive serum at a hospital in Marchand Dessalines, Haiti, on October 22, 2010. (AP/Ramon Espinosa)
Children suffering cholera symptoms receive serum at a hospital in Marchand Dessalines, Haiti, on October 22, 2010. (AP/Ramon Espinosa)

Every day, long-suffering Haitians must be waiting for the next shoe to drop. So many things have gone wrong in Haiti for so long that the only certitude seems to be that more things will go badly, and soon.

Sadly, there’s little evidence right now to contradict that belief. The New York Times notes today, “Since the January earthquake, this devastated country has been bracing for a secondary disaster—a hurricane, an eruption of violence, an outbreak of disease. But nobody anticipated that cholera would make its first appearance in 50 years.”

So far the country has seen more than 250 cholera deaths and more than 3,000 reported cases. Things could get much worse. Fortunately, an extremely large number of very capable professional humanitarian organizations are on the ground in Haiti right now, and these organizations are trying to respond with breakneck speed to contain and mitigate the crisis. They should be able to respond with simple, life-saving treatments such as oral rehydration therapy—an inexpensive liquid mix of salts and sugar—that will ensure people stay properly hydrated even if they contract cholera. Hopefully this can effectively prevent a much wider disaster.

Still, the earthquake, cholera outbreak, and periodic outbreaks of political violence raise a larger question: Why has Haiti been so underdeveloped and downtrodden for so long? After all, the United States and other countries have poured enormous resources into Haiti over the years.

Yet the country was already the least developed in the Americas before the devastating January earthquake that killed more than 200,000 and made more than 1 million homeless. Even before the earthquake a 2007 Congressional Research Service report noted that in the past 40 years Haiti’s per capita real GDP has declined by 30 percent.

Answers to Haiti’s continued poverty aren’t simple. But they tell us much about the challenge of getting development right not just in Haiti but around the globe.


Haiti has had remarkably bad leadership over the years. And no amount of aid dollars or well-intentioned assistance will work in an environment where the country’s own leadership simply is not committed to reform.

Looking over the long list of Haiti’s presidents, the number of those assassinated, executed, overthrown, or who otherwise died in office is appalling. The presidency is often a revolving door for the venal, and the only lengthy stretch of stability in the office was the iron-fisted—and at times literally insane—leadership of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier that lasted for 29 miserable years.

Running Haiti is frequently a winner-take-all proposition with enormous cost to average Haitians. It’s also interesting to note that even though the cholera outbreak and the earthquake have been huge news almost no attention would have been paid to the upcoming presidential election were it not for the fact that musician Wyclef Jean flirted with a candidacy.

The slow hard slog of helping create accountable, noncorrupt public institutions in Haiti is probably the single most important key to a brighter future for the country. But that will not happen without a combination of grassroots pressure and greater international demands for accountability.

Income disparity

Haiti remains one of the most economically unequal countries in the world. Americans’ perception of Haiti has always been of unremitting poverty, but a small substrata of exclusive families in Haiti have done very well and dominated the economic landscape.

This inequality is more than a symptom of Haiti’s underdevelopment—it’s a cause. Wealthy elites have managed to retain their status despite the often chaotic political landscape, and they frequently tilt both political and development decisions in ways that will ultimately benefit them. Donors, development experts, and diplomats have to do a much better job understanding the shadowy world of Haiti’s real economy if they hope to secure lasting change.

International intervention

Foreign assistance is usually the first and only thing that comes to the minds of most Americans when they consider their country’s involvement in Haiti. During the 19th and 20th centuries, however, the United States engaged in a complex and often convoluted set of gunboat diplomacy with Haiti.

U.S. Marines occupied Haiti for almost 20 years beginning in 1915. Subsequent military and political interventions in Haiti have been more benign, but on the whole the repeated interventions from the outside world have helped contribute to Haitians’ sense that they are not masters of their own destiny.

These gunboat diplomacy days in the Caribbean have passed. But the massive modern day interventions of donors, the United Nations, and international financial institutions do bear some common, and often unhelpful, hallmarks. International promises usually outstrip what is actually delivered. Approaches and policies among donors are often poorly coordinated. And donors exhibit too little consensus and pressure that Haitian leaders need to get the fundamentals—such as promoting the rule of law and combating corruption—right.

The Obama administration has signaled in two major policy reviews that it is eager to take a new and more effective approach to foreign assistance. One review was just completed and the other is forthcoming by the end of the year. Haiti will be one of the toughest tests of that new policy.

John Norris is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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John Norris

Senior Fellow; Executive Director, Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative