SYRACUSE, New York — Haiti is known as the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic brought economic hardship to much of the world, the Haitian economy was already struggling. Over 2019 and 2020, the Haitian economy shrunk by more than 5%, with the poverty rate reaching a high of 60%. The infrastructure in Haiti, or lack thereof, means it is difficult to support even basic trade, transport basic supplies and provide clean water, among other challenges. Haiti’s unique challenges make development especially hard, but there remain dedicated NGOs and volunteers committed to improving conditions in Haiti. The Borgen Project spoke with Gene Smith, a humanitarian volunteer, to gain more insight on this topic. Having made several trips to Haiti through the organization Christian Flights International, Smith’s work in Haiti involved hundreds of projects to upgrade housing and improve the lives of Haitians living in poverty.
Political Instability in Haiti
Political instability is a significant obstacle that makes it challenging to reach a struggling population desperately requiring help. For example, the unrest following the assassination of the Haitian President Moïse on July 7, 2021, interrupted NGOs attempting to supply “vital services as Haiti declared a state of emergency.” Unrest and protests hinder the transportation of goods and people for extended periods of time as roads are barricaded due to safety concerns. Traveling can also be dangerous due to armed gangs who may create blockades and require payment for passage.
Smith says that while working in Haiti “it was common to be cautious,” recalling an instance where “the road was blocked by a number of rocks.” A gang made a barrier to prevent travelers from passing by without providing “some kind of payment.” Because poverty breeds desperation, it is important to continue fighting poverty globally, in part, to weaken the presence of gangs and criminal organizations. In impoverished Haiti, this is especially relevant.
The Wrath of Mother Nature
Natural disasters also pose a unique threat to development in Haiti. Hurricanes, floods and earthquakes routinely wreak havoc and damage the limited infrastructure in Haiti. More than 96% of the population is vulnerable to these natural disasters. According to the World Bank, the wrath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 “caused losses and damages estimated at 32% of the 2015 GDP, while the 2010 earthquake that killed about 250,000 people, decimated 120% of the country’s GDP.”
More recently, on August 14, 2021, a severe earthquake again disrupted Haiti with thousands reported dead and thousands more people injured or missing. Following the earthquake, a tropical storm moved through Haiti drenching those surviving. The earthquake measured a magnitude of 7.2, which is slightly higher than the earthquake that displaced 1.5 million people only 11 years ago. For Haiti to rebuild and develop sustainably in light of these unique challenges, significant help from the international community is necessary.
Infrastructure in Haiti
To rebuild Haiti and address Haiti’s unique challenges, the nation requires significant investment in infrastructure. Infrastructure is the support system for a developing economy as goods need to be shipped out and brought in across the country. In Haiti, even basic roads are hard to come by as “roads degrade faster than they are rehabilitated or built,” according to studies from the Haitian government.
Smith’s work in Haiti primarily centered around a remote village called Rankquitte, a place with “no real infrastructure.” In such a remote location, there is “no census taking,” postal services or electricity. Smith details the arduous travel process to reach the village due to lacking infrastructure. “We would fly to Miami and then catch a two-hour flight to Port-au-Prince. We would get into a small six-passenger airplane, fly up over the mountains, into a small airfield.” Smith continues, the volunteer team would then “drive the last 12 miles to the village,” a trip which could take up to two hours due to poor roads.
The Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation recognizes the need to upgrade Haiti’s roads. One plan to build the Gonaives road could reportedly reap benefits 2.3 times greater than the cost of the project. Whilst Haiti’s inability to transport commerce is a significant barrier to progress, such major projects to upgrade infrastructure require the help of international partners.
Resilience to Economic Shocks
This type of investment in infrastructure would allow Haiti to get on the path of sustainable development, growing more resilient to economic shocks that regularly plague the nation. While Smith has primarily built homes on his trips to Haiti, a significant project he participated in was constructing a trade school. Smith explains that a significant problem in Rankquitte is a lack of job opportunities, stating that “unemployment runs around 80%.” The school teaches trades including sewing, small engine repairs and basic electrical repairs. Investing in infrastructure in Haiti lays the foundation that allows Haitians to travel further and transport agriculture more efficiently. Paving the way for job opportunities builds on this foundation and teaching trade skills will strengthen the livelihoods of Haitians during tougher economic climates.
Haiti’s unique challenges pose difficulties in development, but Haiti can face these challenges head-on with the support of the international community. One way to support sustainable development is to invest in infrastructure in Haiti. The United States has significant resources available to fight global poverty with foreign assistance, but even an ordinary individual can make a difference in alleviating global poverty.
– Alex Muckenfuss