A map showing Haiti’s location in the Caribbean region

GIS Essay: Haiti, stubbornly failed state

  • Haiti has been unstable since its independence
  • This stems from demographic and environmental issues
  • Population growth and ecological stress limit Haiti’s options

Library shelves sag under the weight of books on Haiti, old and new. Few areas have been left unstudied: French colonial plantation slavery and the challenges of reparations; European and American occupation and racism; domestic failures to deal with the island’s “culture of poverty”; ecological devastation and endemic corruption. Haitian elites never seem to stop searching for solutions. Foreigners have also contributed well-documented tomes on the complexity and labyrinthine nature of the island’s economy and politics. 

Lessons unlearned

This long-standing interest has now been intensified by one recent calamity after the other: multiple killer hurricanes and, on January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake. Instead of becoming an impulse for reckoning and stocktaking, that tragedy seems only to have added to the ongoing structural and systemic problems that have bedeviled the island for the past two centuries. And things have gotten worse. The July 7, 2021, assassination of President Jovenel Moise shows that Haiti’s history of political turmoil (five assassinations, 22 regime overthrows since 1804) has not ended. Only 11 Haitian presidents ever completed their term in office – four of which were under the United States Marine Corp supervision. What Haitians call the bamboche democratique (democracy as a lark) refers to the unseemly jousting for office on the part of the survivors of the regicide. While members of the elite compete for office, underdevelopment continues to take a frightful toll.

The country is ravaged by overpopulation, environmental devastation, inadequate food availability, virtually nonexistent health services, rampant crime and, perhaps most harmful of all, an inability of the political class to think and act outside their own personal and partisan interests. This state of affairs neither began after the earthquake nor ended in its wake. The United Nations became involved in Haiti in 1990 and by 2010 had 7,000 troops and 2,000 policemen from 30 countries serving in its stabilization mission. (In 2017, it was replaced by a smaller mission “for justice support” in Haiti.) 

The problem is one of demographics and man-land relations
While it is true that many more nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) entered Haiti after the earthquake, there were hundreds of others (no one seems to know how many) which had been feeding, instructing and healing the sick and the needy on their way out.  In his excellent 1989 book, “Quand la Nation demande des comptes,” (When the nation demands accountability), historian Alain Tournier lamented that after each failed regime, Haitian elites soon forgot the lessons of the past and put hope over experience by starting from scratch. In their comprehensive “Written in Blood: the story of the Haitian people, 1492-1995,” authors Robert Heinl and Nancy Heinl put it even more dramatically: “Are the Haitian people living in a perverse continuum, oblivious of their past, doomed always to repeat a history that has been written in blood?”

The tendency to seek answers to this developmental conundrum in Haiti’s culture has been strong.  This, in this writer’s opinion, is not where answers are to be found. The problem is one of demographics and man-land relations.

Gordian knot of problems

In Haiti, economics must be discussed along with demographics and ecology. It is not a new issue; it goes back to the nature of the post-plantation economy.  Since independence, the radically reformed landholding system has been characterized by generalized peasant ownership and subsistence agriculture. This system spared the Haitian peasant the horrors of the typical Latin American latifundio but was harsh on the ecology and not conducive to accumulating surpluses that could be invested elsewhere.  Employment opportunities were primarily in administration – governments that were sustained and financed by squeezing the agricultural sector, composed mainly of peasants.

A chart showing that Haiti’s agriculture is underinvested and incapable of accumulating surpluses that could be invested elsewhere
Haiti’s agricultural sector functions practically with no bank loans (source: macpixxel for GIS)
Peasants must eke a living out of their tiny plots of poor soil. Whatever the merits of minifundia may be, there is one unarguable consequence: Haiti produces less and thus has to import more and more of its food. Importation of foodstuffs increased about three times between 1973 and 1980 and continues to grow.

The decline of the Haitian countryside goes beyond insufficient food cultivation.  The pressure of the land and its wood resources continues its inexorable march toward total ecological disaster. The deteriorating resource base is an ongoing structural problem and can be redressed only with a dramatic reduction in population pressure on the land. Migration, mainly to the Dominican Republic, certainly relieves the pressure but cannot be regarded as a structural solution. The migrants who tried to reach Florida by boat are numerically a minor part of the flow and have a minimal impact on the economic situation. Nothing describes this dramatic situation more starkly than the deficit in that all-important staple of the Haitian diet – rice. 

An infographic showing Haiti’s domestic rice production and consumption
Haiti’s staple food production has been outpaced by demand (source: macpixxel for GIS)
Over the 1980-2010 period, the Haitian population grew by 61 percent, from 5.5 million to 9 million. By July 2021, the population stood at an estimated 11.2 million, half of them residing in Port-au-Prince, a city initially planned for 250,000  inhabitants. Urban growth reflects the worsening environmental situation, dramatically evident in the deteriorating resource base.

A table that quantifies the relentless pressure on Haiti’s resource base
Haiti’s rapid population growth translates into both explosive urbanization and a countryside crisis with a growing surplus of labor and deteriorating land-man ratio combined with a worsening environmental crisis (source: macpixxel for GIS)
It is evident, therefore, that the crisis in Haiti’s countryside affects the whole country – including urban areas, the epicenter of its politics. Haiti’s situation is bad by any comparative standards: the annual growth of Haitian agricultural production during the early 1980s averaged 1.2 percent; for South America, it was 3.3 percent, while the total for the Third World was 2.9 percent.

Structural improvement can come about in only two ways: in the short term, by an urban industrialization program to absorb the excess rural labor; in the long term, by a very significant reduction in the birth rate. Neither appears likely to occur soon, especially not the latter. The trend is clear: the population is growing at an annual rate of 3.1 percent, extraordinary even in Third World terms. However, there is no evidence that either of the two factors that reduce fertility (natural fertility reduction resulting from substantial increases in the standard of living and artificial birth control) are present. Only 7 percent of Haitian women practice artificial birth control compared to 55 percent who do so in neighboring Jamaica. The known demographic facts are that Haitians will not reach a net reproduction rate of 1 percent until 2030. Even after that, the actual population size will not become stationary until the year 2145. At that point, it will stand at seventeen million.  

External assistance fails

In 2019, Haiti received $1.9 billion in remittances, which represented 24 percent of its GDP – but that income, personal and beyond state control, contributed little to infrastructure development. Social dependence on such foreign sources has led even an experienced expert such as the Oxford economics Professor Paul Collier to recommend increased foreign donations. In his much-admired book, “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It,” he lists four “traps” which make countries fail (to wit: the trap of constant conflict; the trap of limited resources; the trap of being landlocked with bad neighbors; and most certainly, the trap of bad government in a small state characterized by rampant corruption).  It is not difficult to identify these traps in the Haitian case.  And, yet, appointed by the Bill Clinton Foundation to recommend a development strategy for Haiti, Mr. Collier in his report for the UN calls Haiti not a “failed” but “fragile” state, and he concludes: "In stark contrast to the other current entanglements with fragile states Haiti offers the American and Canadian governments a rare opportunity to demonstrate that their support can lift a society decisively out of fragility."

Professor Collier’s economic model is premised on foreign capital creating export enclaves of labor-absorbing manufacturing for exports. Such enterprises are concentrated in relatively isolated geographical spaces specializing in an economic function. Given Haiti’s desperate circumstances, including rampant crime, 50 percent illiteracy, unemployment and inadequate infrastructure, such concentrations could help – at least in theory. In reality, the history of these enclaves does not warrant optimism, as the following cases reveal.

Street protest of Haitian legal professionals against violence that claimed their prominent colleague
Port-au-Prince, Sept. 4, 2020: Haitian lawyers stage a protest against the insecurity after the assassination of the president of the capital city’s bar association (source: Getty Images)
Perhaps the most successful one is Labadie, the tourist-oriented, 240-acre, fenced-off space rented by Royal Caribbean Cruise Line in Northern Haiti. Granted, the fence ensures something vital: safety. Also true is the benefit of the 240 students at the school for Labadie employees and residents of the town. The reality is that 35.5 percent of the remainder of Haitian children (or 3.5 million) are out of school. It would take 15,434 Labadie-type schools to accommodate them. Additionally, any circumstance such as the 14-month Covid-19 lockdown of the cruise industry involves a similar lockdown for the whole enclave.  

Prickly Haitian nationalism and negative memories of the long intervention can easily be triggered
Another experiment was a garment factory sponsored by South Korea and the Bill Clinton Foundation, which was built with housing for 20,000 workers in an isolated enclave in the Northeast. The U.S. Congress voted to grant duty-free access to the U.S. market for the clothing produced there. Roads were built by the European Union, and electricity was supplied by a plant financed by the InterAmerican Development Bank. Today, the buildings stand partly empty as workers left to go back to their lakous (villages where they bury their kin). 

These cases are not exceptions. One is sobered by an October 2010 Oxfam “Briefing Paper on Haiti’s Agriculture,” which describes how, in an attempt to draw the peasants out of their “technological stagnation,” a network of 50 enclaved agricultural research and training centers had been set up in the 1950s. By 2000, not one of these centers was still functioning; both government and NGO support had withdrawn in the face of peasant disinterest.

Numerous academic works attempted to explain the indifference of the Haitian peasant to foreign-conducted and structured enterprises, but the study of the American anthropologist, Melville J. Herskovits, of the Mirebalais Valley at the end of the U.S. Occupation (1934) remains seminal. The author concluded that the many efforts of the Americans “seems to have passed without any discernable effect.” Many other attempts to engage peasants in “modern” ways are described in the impressive work of two Haitian scholars who conclude that their country is indeed a failed state: “After two centuries of political conflicts and economic stagnation, nothing appears to improve for Haiti.”  

A possible strategy – with caveats

All this leads one to agree with Robert Rotberg when he warns in “Haiti, the politics of squalor” that overoptimism generates cynicism and loss of confidence in government. Instead of grandiose schemes, he recommends modest goals and projects. “Since the prospects for development in Haiti – even given a more promising political environment must be regarded as bleak,” the author argues, “modest goals are the only ones worth setting.” Avoid promoting what the anthropologist Andre Corten calls in his book “these broken promises.” But while advising against overoptimism is wise, it does not provide specific, realistic policy options. This is why the following recommendations of Dr. Paul Farmer, longtime resident provider of medical services in rural Haiti, make sense.  

Be realistic about solving Haiti’s “chronic,” i.e., persistent, problems of underdevelopment, Dr. Farmer says, but be prepared to act decisively on what he terms “acute” crises – the destruction wrought by hurricanes, earthquakes, or epidemics, such as recent cholera and present Covid-19 type. As reasonable as the doctor’s recommendations are, there are predictably two potential problems with acting on such acute events.  

The Haitian Congress has not met in two years, and overall security has collapsed
First, since it has been repeatedly demonstrated that it is the U.S. military that has the wherewithal to carry out a significant intervention, prickly Haitian nationalism and negative memories of the long intervention can easily be triggered. Perhaps even more detrimental to heavily funded emergency actions is the corruption, widely recognized as endemic. None of the billions of dollars granted after the 2010 earthquake (including $2 billion from the Venezuelan-led Petrocaribe alliance) have been truly accounted for. 

 Another and more immediate obstacle is what might be called “humanitarian aid exhaustion.” This is palpably evident in the dramatic decline in nongovernmental organizations’ presence in Haiti. On the ground in 1982, there were 595 NGOs from 19 countries recognized by the Haitian state, including among them 317 Haitian, 128 U.S., 31 French and 20 Canadian. By 2012, this had been reduced to 170, with the largest drops by those of Haitians (60), U.S. (51), French (17) and Canadian (8). Even the office of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) of which Haiti is a member, has been closed. Also gone are the UN contingents, which helped keep the peace. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan predicted that if the contingents departed before Haitian authorities could ensure stability, chaos would follow.


It is sad to conclude that Secretary Annan’s prediction has come true. In a jarring manifestation of hope over experience, the recently assassinated President Moise had promised that things could be set straight by enacting a new constitution. It would have been constitution number 21 since independence; the present one dates only to 1987. Meanwhile, the Haitian Congress has not met in two years, and overall security – including that of the president – has all but collapsed. Serious crime (homicides and kidnapping) is rampant; well-armed gangs are controlling significant parts of the city of Port-au-Prince and have been able to block the roads to the agricultural, food-producing regions. The CIA’s World Facts Book estimates that in 2021, 40 percent of Haiti’s population face acute food insecurity or need urgent food assistance; this is a distressing but accurate sign of a failed state.

Granted, many development consultants, just like native politicians, find it impossible to believe that Haiti is truly a “failed” state, yet none can point to any successful developmental scenarios. The country that admirably gave to the world the first successful slave-led rebellion remains without known longer-term solutions to its endemic, centuries-old failures.

Haiti remains a deeply distressed society 

  • Haiti was the Caribbean’s first black-led republic from 1804 and the first independent state after its French colonial past
  •  It was forced to pay an indemnity to France for more than a century and was long shunned by other countries
  • It has had trouble organizing its affairs from the beginning, with leaders changing in a series of revolts
  • Haiti achieved notoriety during the 29-year brutal dictatorship of  Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1957-1971) and his son “Baby Doc” Jean-Claude (1971-1986) when tens of thousands of Haitians were killed
  • The UN has been involved in the country since 1990, international peacekeepers since 2004; democratic rule was restored in 2006, two years after a violent revolt ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
  • Natural disasters strike regularly; the 2010 earthquake – the worst in 200 years – killed tens of thousands
  • It is the poorest country in the Americas with an economy in ruins and chronic unemployment; there is an immense wealth gap between the Creole-speaking black majority and the 1% minority who also speak French and control estimated half of the country’s wealth
  • Many Haitians seek a new life in the neighboring Dominican Republic, the U.S. and other Caribbean countries

By clicking "I Agree" below, you acknowledge that you accept our Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions. Feel free to check out our policies anytime for more information.
I agree