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” Haiti has a uniquely tragic history.”


So goes the first sentence in the Federal Research Division profile of Haiti for 2006.  Here follow key facts from the rest of the study:

“Slopes of more than a 20 percent grade cover nearly two-thirds of the country.”

“By agronomic standards, the majority of Haiti’s land (63 percent) is too steep for agricultural production, and only about 28 percent is considered arable. Despite this fact, nearly 80 percent of the country’s area functions, at least temporarily, as agricultural land. These less  than ideal conditions make yields low and stability difficult. Only 11.5 percent of the land is used for permanent crops. Irrigation is limited, and the government’s recent commitment to irrigating 40,000 hectares within five years was called off with only 5,600 hectares improved. Mountains take up a significant portion of the country, and concentrated urban areas house most of the country’s population. ”

” Haiti faces a severe deforestation problem. In 1923 forests covered nearly 60 percent of the country; today they cover less than 2 percent. Until recently the government had done little to combat this problem. Because most Haitians still depend on wood and charcoal as their primary fuel source, energy alternatives are needed to save the forests.”

A number of plans have been proposed to help control these problems, but they have not shown significant progress to date.

“Haiti has extremely low life expectancy– about 53 years in 2006 (51.9 years for males and 54.6 years for females). Haiti had an estimated birthrate of 36.4 births per 1,000 population and a death rate of 12.2 deaths per 1,000 population in 2006. Haiti’s death rate ranks as the worst in the western hemisphere, as does its 2006 infant mortality rate of nearly 72 deaths per 1,000 live births.”

“In 2006 Haiti had an estimated population of 8.3 million, with an annual growth rate of about 2.3 percent. Haiti is the western hemisphere’s second most densely populated country (248 persons per square kilometer), trailing only Barbados.”

” Haitian women have an average of 4.9 children… The country’s median age is 18. About 42 percent of the population is 14 or younger…”

“Haiti’s literacy rate of about 53 percent (55 percent for males and 51 percent for females) falls well below the 90 percent average literacy rate for Latin American and Caribbean countries.”

“Currently, most Haitian schools are private rather than state-funded. International private schools (run by Canada, France, or the United States) and church-run schools educate 90 percent of students. ”

” 80 percent of Haiti’s population lives below the poverty line… half of all Haitian children are undersized as a result of malnutrition…only 43 percent of the target population receives the recommended immunizations… Per capita, Haiti spends about US$83 annually on health care… ”

“Haiti has the highest incidence of human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) outside of Africa… the United Nations projects the national prevalence rate to be 4.5 percent of the population. Other estimates place the rate as high as 12 percent in the urban population and 5 percent in rural regions…”

” The annual per capita income is about US$450, and most of the population (60 percent) faces underemployment… working and living conditions have been so poor that emigration, often by any means possible, has become a popular avenue of escape. About one out of every eight Haitians presently lives outside the country’s borders. ”

” Between 1995 and 2003, the United States contributed more than US$850 million to Haiti’s development. ”

” Only one in 50 Haitians has a steady wage-earning job… In 2005 Haiti had an estimated GDP of US$4.3 billion… ”

” Some estimates suggest that two-thirds of the country’s 3.6 million workers are without consistent work. Many Haitians survive through subsistence farming rather than looking for jobs in the overcrowded urban areas…”

“Agriculture, together with forestry and fishing, accounts for about one-quarter (28 percent in 2004) of Haiti’s annual gross domestic product and employs about two-thirds (66 percent in 2004) of the labor force… Of the total arable land of 550,000 hectares, 125,000 hectares are suited for irrigation, and of those only 75,000 hectares actually have been improved with irrigation… ”

The inflation rate has fluctuated wildly and has reached 40 percent a year at times.  In 2004 it was 22 percent and in 2005, about 15 percent.

“Between 1999 and 2004, Haiti’s foreign benefactors—the United States, the European Union, the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank—jointly suspended aid disbursements in response to evidence of systematic electoral fraud and the failure of the Haitian government to implement accountability measures. Aid was restored in July 2004 after an interim administration was named. Haiti was scheduled to receive more than US$1 billion in pledged aid for 2005 and 2006. The United States pledged US$230 million in aid through fiscal year 2006. ”

The above quotes are merely brief snatches from a very large and comprehensive document that describes Haiti in minute detail, particularly including its history.  The long history of political instability is well described, and includes the stories of corruption and violence that helped destroy many regimes.

It appears that most Haitians who remain in Haiti are primarily suited to be subsistence farmers, and the farming way of life has been severely impacted by soil erosion poor irrigation, loss of the native Creole pig, and price competition from cheap foreign rice.  The amounts of money that have been provided in foreign aid look like a drop in the bucket compared to Haiti’s need.

The kind of help that it would appear Haiti needs most is agricultural: seeds, pigs, instruction in new techniques of farming, provision of anti-erosion materials and techniques, and most of all support to stay on the farm and encouragement to return to productivity.  As a part of that massive farming aid program, it may be necessary to have land reform because there are indications that many farmers are stuck with small, multiply divided plots that are impossible to work efficiently.

Housing and building programs are also needed.  Most Haitians live in substandard houses and conduct government business in buildings susceptible to earthquakes.  A building program that includes structures resistant to earthquakes and to hurricanes as well is what the construction sector really needs.

There was a severely misguided attempt to bring Haiti from the agricultural world into the industrial world during the 1990’s and this led only to increased misery for the Haitian peasant.  Since most of the people are still in the farm-living stage of development, aid is needed to make that stage strong enough to support them rather than to try to suddenly raise their stage of development.

All of this sounds like pie in the sky when I list it here.  But there is little sense in untargeted, diffuse aid programs that provide little more than a handout.

Working directly with the people who need aid and bypassing government may be necessary to avoid corruption.  The people in Haiti who are in control of politics and governance are probably too corrupt to be trusted.  Resistance is to be expected from those sectors which feel slighted by this procedure and may even be violent.

Only by massive, targeted aid programs can Haiti be transformed from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere into a semblance of a prosperous underdeveloped nation.

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