"Haiti and the International Community" by Josh DeWind, Ph.D.

DeWind is Director of the Migration Program of the Social Science Research Council. He and David Kinley co-authored Aiding Migration: The Impact of International Development Assistance on Haiti (1989). DeWind also co-edited Rethinking Migration: New Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives (2008).

In 1981, when the dictator Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier was still Haiti’s president, international development and finance agencies meeting under the aegis of the World Bank formulated an export-oriented development strategy that was intended to transform Haitian society and politics.

Previously Haiti’s agriculture and industry primarily produced goods for local consumption, but the new approach was designed to draw Haitian workers into urban factories and rural agribusinesses whose products would be sold abroad, primarily in the United States. Export of baseballs and mango paste was to replace local sale of handicrafts and rice. With the wages of export production, Haitian workers were then expected to purchase imported food, clothing, and other goods made abroad. Foreign investment in partnership with Haitian entrepreneurs would expand employment, strengthen the middle class, and give new leaders the incentive and means of bringing about political reforms and instituting effective democratic governance.

This development strategy was consistent with the shift from government to private enterprise-oriented international assistance that began with the Caribbean Basin Initiative (instituted under president Ronald Reagan), was more broadly expanded in the North American Free-Trade Act (NAFTA), and spread globally through the liberalization and restructuring of economic investment, production, and trade of the "Washington consensus."

Export-led growth has prevailed as Haiti’s development strategy to the present day and underlies the contemporary post-earthquake recovery and development policies of international agencies and the Haitian government. But, to attain the benefits of export-led development in world markets, small nations like Haiti must take advantage of their "comparative advantage," which in Haiti’s case has been primarily its relatively inexpensive labor force, a result of long term poverty. This strategy’s dependence on low cost labor creates a central paradox: while increasing employment and wages is the basis for raising Haitian workers and their families out of poverty, increasingly higher wage levels discourage foreign investors from contracting with Haitian assembly firms or investing in agricultural enterprises. Caught in the middle, the government has been able neither to appease the requirements of employers nor to defend the demands of workers. Such structural contradictions both frustrate the will of politicians who might seek to use the government to improve Haiti’s common welfare and perpetuate the chaos and inefficiency of competition between individual leaders who for all too long have competed to secure the self-interests of small factions.

Haiti’s per capita gross national product has declined steadily since the 1980s. Made even more difficult by the recent earthquake’s destruction of public and private infrastructure, the unintended consequence of export-led development has been the perpetuation of Haiti’s poverty.