Weekly insights into our crazy world.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Jan 14

The earthquake and subsequent chaos that has engulfed Haiti has shocked people worldwide. The chances of a once-in-a-20-year of a natural disaster striking the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere is a cruel turn of events. But one has to wonder: Why is Haiti so poor? Haiti's size and climate is very similar to other Caribbean nations…yet living conditions are completely different. For example, nearby Barbados boasts the third highest standard of living in the Northern Hemisphere (behind Canada and the US). What makes Haiti so different?

The answer is found during the colonial period. In the 1700’s, Europe was obsessed with sugar. Unavailable to the masses until recently, delicate sweets became a luxury desired by everyone, driving demand and prices for raw sugar to astronomical heights. Like our modern unquenchable thirst for oil, nations scrambled to produce the product by any means possible. The result was a triangular system of trade: African laborers were brought to Caribbean islands to produce sugar for Europe.

While the story of African slaves in not new to anyone in the world, many don't understand the enormous differences between the numbers of Africans imported to specific nations. Estimates are from 1600 to 1800 the French imported 850,000 slaves to Haiti. This figure is the highest to any colony in the world. To compare, estimates are the USA/13 colonies imported a total of 420,000--half the amount. But the starling difference is that Haiti is the same size as the state of Maryland.

France created a human sugar factory in Haiti. By 1750, half of the world’s sugar came from the tiny colony. Unrest quelled as the ratio of slaves to whites was 10 to 1. A bloody revolution made Haiti became the second nation to gain independence in the Western Hemisphere in 1804. Unfortunately, during the 1800's modern sugar mills evolved and the need for copious amounts of labor disappeared. Haiti, with a high population density, little infrastructure and no education began a long, painful slide into abject poverty.

Ironically, colonies that stayed part of European empires fared much better. They would diversify economically and continue to grow (albeit unequally) like their mother countries. Many, like Barbados, are part of the British Commonwealth. Others, like Martinique and Aruba, are still overseas territories of France and Holland. None have the high poverty levels of Haiti.
It’s sad that we often need natural disasters to make us aware of situations around the world, but let’s hope the more we learn about the history of places like Haiti, the better prepared the world will be for the next earthquake.
And France should be at the top of list of donor nations!

No comments:

Post a Comment