Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Humanitarian Aid Hurts Haiti

The recent earthquake in Haiti killed over 2,000 people, destroyed over 50,000 homes, and damaged over a third of all schools in the hard-hit Sud province. But as for what remains of the Haitian economy? Well, it seems the U.S. is bent on killing it off.

We all know what they say about the roads good intentions pave, and the U.S. is on the verge of creating more hell for Haitians with our humanitarian aid. And it’s not the first time, either. After the 2010 earthquake, for instance, humanitarian aid ravaged wide swaths of the Haitian economy by placing Haitian businesses into competition with American charities.

One Haitian entrepreneur, Jean-Ronel Noel, had a rapidly growing solar panel company that employed more than 60 Haitians before the 2010 earthquake. His employees lament that “after the earthquake, we were competing mostly against NGOs [non-governmental organizations]” and “the demand stopped because it’s hard to compete with free.”

Despite these destructive consequences, many activists believe we can avert the problems of 2010 by empowering local Haitian NGOs instead of American giants like the Red Cross.

The pattern of international exchange impoverishing Haiti, after all, is deeply entrenched in the international order and dates back to early Haitian history when Haiti was the wealthiest colony in the Americas. Haiti once represented more than a quarter of the French economy and thus the French became enraged when Haiti became independent after a slave revolt in 1804.

French warships returned just 21 years later to demand reparation, and at gunpoint, Haiti was forced to repay what would be more than $21 billion today. This sum is nearly twice their current GDP and would be equivalent to the UK demanding over $32 trillion from the U.S. The “independence debt” burdened Haiti until it was finally paid off just 74 years ago.

Haiti found little relief afterward as the U.S. quickly stepped in and began manipulating Haiti’s agricultural economy in the 1970s. Rather than supporting Haiti’s fledgling agricultural industry, the U.S. government bullied Haitian leaders into reducing Haitian tariffs on American products.

With the Haitian agricultural industry reeling from the influx of cheap American food, President Bill Clinton utterly ruined the Haitian rice industry by increasing subsidies for American farmers. He later admitted that this policy helped “some of my farmers in Arkansas.” For Haitian farmers? Their livelihoods were ravaged.

The result of suppressing Haiti’s economy for two centuries is a nation without an economy of its own. More than half of all Haitians live on less than $2 per day and many rely on remittances — money transfers from abroad. Remittances account for over 30% of the entire economy. They are more than 40 times more valuable than all Haitian exports and more than 10 times more valuable than all imports.

Haiti lacks modern luxuries like access to the Internet, with equally sized Belgium housing 142 times more Internet addresses than Haiti. Meanwhile, Haitians have the lowest life expectancy in the Americas and a rate of undernourishment — 48% of the population — that ties North Korea for highest in the world.

Our inclination after learning about the desperate situation in Haiti is to donate, especially in the wake of the recent earthquake, and Americans absolutely should pride themselves on being the most charitable country in the world. We must also recognize that our charity has created an American poverty economy that traps Haitians in a cycle of dependence and prevents the Haitian economy from ever taking off.

Haiti — intentionally destroyed by France with American assistance — therefore poses a downright depressing challenge for those concerned with the welfare of the Haitian people. Those outside Haiti, especially those in the poverty industry, must rethink our relief efforts though because, as the destructive response to the 2010 earthquake demonstrates, we are not powerless.

We can immediately make an impact in Haiti by advocating for the reversal of our destructive trade policy in a manner that constitutes a meaningful reparation. We have exempted many items from tariffs but we should immediately replace this complicated list of rules with a simple policy that all Haitians and Americans can understand: all goods and services directly imported from or exported to Haiti shall not be taxed.

Opening the United States to unconditionally tax-free trade with Haiti completely reverses and negates one policy that has helped subdue Haiti’s agricultural industry for decades. As such, a tax-free trade policy toward Haiti is a necessary first reparation that can empower Haitians to begin building an economy of their own.