Even before Haiti’s worst earthquake in more than a century caused untold damage and devastated the nation’s already-fragile economy, Haiti held the dubious distinctions of being the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished and corruption-ridden country, a combination of circumstances that tended to reinforce each other.
That history now overshadows Haiti’s future, as the United States and its partners mobilize an international relief mission to help the country recover and rebuild from Tuesday’s earthquake.
“On the edge of despair before the earthquake, Haiti has now fallen into the abyss,” said James Roberts, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who served as economic counsel at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti in 2006 and 2007.
Haiti “began with a very shaky start and has had a very destabilizing history ever since,” Mr. Roberts said.
Weak government institutions and a culture of corruption, he said, have combined to prevent the country from achieving sustained economic development.
The roots of the country’s woes run deep.
In 1804, Haiti became the world’s first black republic to declare its independence, after a rebellion by impoverished slaves defeated their French colonial masters. Haiti is the hemisphere’s second-oldest independent country.
For generations, however, the vast majority of Haitians have led grim economic lives. An estimated 80 percent of Haiti’s 9 million people live below the poverty line, and more than half live in abject poverty.
With a gross domestic product of about $7 billion, the per-capita GDP is less than $800 per year, or barely $2 per day. In addition to widespread unemployment, more than two-thirds of the labor force do not have formal jobs.
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“The lack of any protection of private property rights is at the core of Haiti’s development problem,” Mr. Roberts said. Haiti ranked 147th out of 184 countries in the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, prepared by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. In its respect for property rights, Haiti ranked above only Burma, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.
Because of the lack of property rights, Mr. Roberts said, massive environmental degradation has resulted in 95 percent deforestation. The result: extensive erosion and a lack of clean water.
Dan Erikson, director of the Caribbean Project at the Inter-American Dialogue, a center-left, nonpartisan think tank, also cited ineffectual property rights as a major factor in Haiti’s enduring poverty.
“Haiti cannot provide a stable climate for investment because it lacks the legal and regulatory institutions to protect contractual rights,” Mr. Erikson said. “Haiti has a very brittle institutional framework compared to the Dominican Republic.”
The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti and also has a population of 9 million. Ranked 88th in the Index of Economic Freedom, the Dominican Republic has an annual per capita income of nearly $5,000 - more than six times higher than in Haiti.
Mr. Erikson estimated that Haitians living abroad send $1.5 billion a year to their families back home.
“Haitians’ success in the United States demonstrate that Haiti’s problems are not due to individuals,” Mr. Erikson said. “They’re due to the system and the environment in which they live.”
That system is extraordinarily corrupt. In a global index of corruption compiled by Transparency International for 2009, Haiti ranked 168th out of 180 countries, tied with Iran and Burundi.
Pervasive graft and insider dealing siphoned a significant portion of the $8.9 billion in aid that Haiti received between 1960 and 2008 from the wealthy members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In recent years, however, Haiti began to make tentative progress, as the economy grew between 1 percent and 3 percent since 2005, Mr. Erikson said. That period coincided with the democratic election of President Rene Preval and a new parliament in May 2006, a vote held under the auspices of a United Nations stabilization mission.
“What makes the earthquake so tragic is that it looked like Haiti was on a path to more sustained development when you could see some hope,” Mr. Erikson said.
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