There are few nation-states in our modern times that have been through as much turmoil as Haiti, a Caribbean nation that remains incredibly fragile to this day. It’s a testament to the resilience of the people that there is still hope that things can turn around, but it’s going to take significant efforts to transform the country from a troubled society into one that can stand on its own two feet.
Decades of political instability combined with dire natural disasters have challenged the core of civil society, leaving a rather bitter taste in the mouths of those who call the island home. It stands out as an unfortunate example of what can happen when centuries of underdevelopment and exploitation stymies progress of all kinds. Much of this narrative we’ve seen before, but Haiti’s rich cultural heritage and optimism sparks hope that the nation can rally together and make the sorts of progress that other fragile states have struggled to achieve.
Looking back at Haiti’s history, you can see that this is not a recent phenomenon. Unfortunately, by virtue of its geographical location and the subsequent economic struggles, Haiti has been disproportionately affected by devastating natural disasters throughout its history. They have suffered through cyclones, hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, and earthquakes – with the most recent one being an infamous 2010 event that killed upwards of 250,000 people.
It’s difficult enough building up a society without wealth, but when you add these sorts of disasters into the mix, it constantly feels like one step forward, two steps back. The consistency and regularity with which these disasters have occurred punctuate the country’s history and are a key component of why the nation remains as underdeveloped as it is today.
However, it’s not just the weather. Haiti suffered the same European colonization that so many others did, and this changed the country’s future forever. Indigenous peoples of the land were kidnapped and forced into slavery which continued right up until the late 1970s. And even after fighting back against the Spanish and French to win their independence, the country struggled to recover, and political instability became the norm.
The 2010 earthquake marked a sharp uptick in global awareness for Haiti, and in the midst of the wreckage, some of the modern obstacles were drawn into the light. Centuries of underdevelopment had created a society where crime ran rampant, and the very pillars of civil society were not holding their weight. The former slaves did not have the resources or the education in order to form a functioning economy, and while international aid helped to rebuild key infrastructure, the problems ran much deeper than that. Without a stable political environment, foreign investment waned and there simply wasn’t the sorts of opportunities for Haiti to compete on the global landscape.
The COVID-19 pandemic was another significant blow as whatever tourism was coming into the economy vanished overnight. While the island geography did provide some protection from the spreading virus, the country’s minuscule status was emphasized by the fact that they only received their first batch of the vaccines in July of this year, the very last country in the Americas to do so. What this did to the psyche and morale of the citizens is hard to pin down, but it remains a powerful metaphor about how fragile Haiti’s place in our modern world actually is.
Another significant blow happened at around the same time when President Jovenel Moïse was assassinatedin his home by a group of Colombian mercenaries in July 2021. This sent shockwaves through the island and once again set them back politically and economically. Ariel Henry replaced him, and he faces an uphill battle to try and rid the country of its status as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
Even more recently, 16 Americans and one Canadian national were kidnapped in Haiti by an armed gang – which drew even more unwanted negative attention to the country. In the wake of this, both Canada and the USA asked their nationals to depart the country – striking a dangerous precedent for the future of tourism from the Americas. Looking at the other direction, thousands of Haitian migrants who have made the journey up to the US border to seek asylum have been turned away by border agents. Those refuge seekers sought a better life, and being turned away alienates them even further.
In the midst of all of this, many questions remain. But most of them relate to how this small island nation can pull itself back up and plot a path towards a better future.
Where to from Here?
Haiti’s path to redemption will not be easy, but there are some opportunities that back up the hope that some feel about the troubled nation. Here are some of the key actions that can give the nation a chance to recover to some form of stability:
- Improve global competitiveness. Haiti boasts a lot of the same Caribbean features that many other islands leverage to become tourist hubs in their own right. The white sandy beaches and moderate climate offers something that the existing tourist market covets. If Haiti can focus on improving its competitiveness and marketing in the eyes of foreigners, there is an opportunity to vastly expand their tourism efforts, bringing investment into the country and creating jobs for the middle class.
- Reform the business environment. If you look at Haiti’s business policies, they aren’t as friendly to entrepreneurs and investors as one might like. It seems that the decades of political instability have left the regulatory framework somewhat neglected. By prioritizing reforms to legislation around small and medium businesses, one might expect that the economy would benefit from more young people taking the risk to start their own ventures. The country cannot rely on international aid; they must empower their own people to create the jobs that are so desperately needed.
- Collaborate with neighbouring nations. One of the big challenges that Haiti faces is that its population of 11 million doesn’t represent a very large market for consumer goods or other economic activity, especially when the majority find themselves below the poverty line. Instead, the country should be looking to partner with neighbouring countries and combine market sizes to provide the necessary scale for local businesses to expand and grow. They do have specialization potential in terms of certain agricultural products, and these should be leveraged on a wider scale than just at home.
- Develop a clear long-term strategy. Due to constant political unrest, the country has never been able to set strategic imperatives that everyone can work towards as a north star. This is a crucial step to regaining some global competitiveness and creating a narrative that citizens, investors, and nation builders can gather around. This should be thoughtful and in line with where the world is going, not where it currently is.
These suggestions are not easy, by any stretch of the imagination, but they are key components of a future Haiti that finds its feet. Achieving them will require immense political will, astute business decision-making, and a new belief that this small island nation can loosen the shackles of the past and begin to punch above its own weight.
Only time will tell as to whether this is a nation due for a rags-to-riches story, or one that is destined to live perpetually in fragility and turmoil.
Hadi Wess is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa in Psychology with a double minor in French and Italian. He works for the Government of Canada and is heavily involved in media and politics. He is a Presenter on Rogers tv, an Anchor on 97.9 FM, an Ambassador to SOS Canada, and a Mentor at the Canadian International Council. His research interests focus revolve around Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, immigration and refugee issues, diplomacy, fragile states, and conflicts.