President Donald Trump reportedly described Haiti and a slew of other nations as "shithole countries" while meeting with lawmakers about immigration policy yesterday. If you expected more from from him, then you probably expect too much.
But eight years to the day after an earthquake brought Haiti to its knees, most Americans view the country closer to the way Trump describes the place than they'd like to admit. The typical American's understanding of Haiti doesn't go much further than the global press's tagline: the "poorest country in the Western Hemisphere." And there is undeniably poverty in Haiti. The average economic output for a Haitian is $820 per year, compared with their neighbors in the Dominican Republic, who average $6,000.
I spent nearly four years working in Haiti, first as an economics journalist and then as the manager of a coffee-farming venture. As I wrote in Haitian Coffee Grows on Trees, my book about my time there: "Over half of all Haitians are undernourished, compared to just 15 percent of Dominicans. Just one in four Haitians has access to a toilet. More than half of all adults cannot read. Money sent home by friends and family who live abroad powers almost a quarter of the economy. That's not too surprising once you know a figure that development economist Michael Clemens often cites: 80 percent of Haitians who have escaped poverty have done so not by staying in their own country but by leaving for the United States." Only about one in five Haitians have a job that pays a steady wage. The rest work informally, or not at all.
Today, if you look at a list of coffee-growing countries, you might not even find Haiti on it. Which is shocking, given that just over 200 years ago, the colony that predated Haiti was the world's biggest coffee producer. The story of how the tiny place that once sold half the world's coffee fell off those lists takes many pages to tell. But the country's current predicament has far more to do with the U.S. government than everyday Haitians.
To be clear, the Haitian state and its leaders have perpetually hamstrung their own people, when not outright decimating them. But Haiti's history also includes a United States that initially refused to acknowledge or trade with the second free republic in the New World—the first free black republic, borne of a successful slave revolution. It includes two decades of occupation by U.S. Marines, a time when free Haitians were conscripted into chain gangs and shot dead for attempting to escape. It includes hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to a father-son dictatorship whose three-decade reign ruined the country's economy and murdered thousands of citizens. And it includes a foreign aid faucet that continues to flow today, despite the ill incentives it creates. Tweaks to immigration policy would do orders of magnitude more to help ordinary Haitians than that aid—as if helping Haitians were a concern of the present administration.
For everyday Haitians, life working as in the United States as a manual laborer, hotel housekeeper, or fruit picker is often much better and more lucrative than doing much of anything in Haiti. Roughly 80 percent of the half-a-million-plus Haitians who live in the U.S. are working age. Eight in 10 of them who are over 25 have high school degrees, which means they're slightly more educated than the average immigrant and only slightly less than native-born Americans.
Clemens has called immigration Haiti's "most successful poverty reduction program." He and fellow economist Lant Pritchett have estimated that a low-skilled worker from Haiti can increase his or her earnings by sixfold by immigrating to the United States. A coherent immigration system would allow employers to hire willing foreigners from Haiti and any other country on the president's shit list to fill niches in the service sector, on construction sites, and wherever else they're needed. It would also make it much easier for highly skilled or entrepreneurial foreign nationals to invest in the U.S. regardless of where they come from.
Frantz Duval, editor in chief of Haiti's largest daily, responded to yesterday's reports with a column that called his home "a country that deserves better from us." After 200-plus years of policy forged with a mixture of racism and condescension, Haiti surely deserves better from Washington too.