14 January 2010

What’s with Haiti?

There are times I wonder if some countries are just cursed; Bangladesh, for example, often seems a contender for the title of Land Most Abandoned by God. We hardly blink when we read that a typhoon has killed another hundred thousand people there. But no place on earth can compete with Haiti. A slave revolt is hardly a promising foundation for a free nation, but in the eighteenth century most observers would presumably have said the same thing about a colonial rebellion. Given that Haiti was the second or third (depending on whether you count the Vermont Republic of 1777–1791) nonindigenous independent state in the New World, one might expect it today to be among the more prosperous parts of the Americas. This is most emphatically not the case: Haiti’s per-capita PPP GDP is half that of the next-poorest country in the Americas (Nicaragua), and Haiti is the second-poorest country outside Africa (Afghanistan, of course, being the poorest). Most strikingly, the rest of the island on which Haiti lies forms the Dominican Republic (not, confusingly, the entirely different island of Dominica), which differs little in geography from the Haitian side and largely shared the same history and demographics until 1804; the Dominican Republic, while not by any means a wealthy country, has a per-capita PPP GDP more than six times Haiti’s. It is said that you can see the Haitian–Dominican border from space: Haiti starts where the island’s forest cover abruptly ends. That’s a decidedly nontrivial difference given apparently very similar starting conditions. So what’s with Haiti?

Cursed Haiti is on my mind at the moment, of course, because it is again in the news, having just suffered a horrible earthquake. Coincidentally, I am currently reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which devotes an entire chapter to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I’m still on the part discussing the Greenland Norse, a society which lasted several centuries before becoming extinct (as compared with Iceland, settled a few years earlier and – recent financial excitement aside – still going strong after more than a millenium, or North America, where the Norse settlement lasted less than a generation). While I can venture some guesses as to what Diamond’s analysis will be, I am very much looking forward to reading it... and blogging about it here.

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