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Haiti and the culture of poverty


Published: Oct 16, 2013

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It may seem odd that my op-ed last week dealing with the issue of the wealth of Haiti is followed this week by one about the culture of poverty in that island nation.  Indeed the culture of poverty, along with the lack of a culture of appurtenance are the major stumbling blocks towards Haiti’s recovery and incremental progress towards wealth creation for all and by all.

Those stumbling blocks are not germane to Haiti.  We find them in most of the former French colonized countries as well as in France.  The young men and women graduated from the best schools of France prefer to live in and work from London or Zurich than in Paris where the culture of wealth creation and wealth accumulation is more prominent and more appealing under the Big Ben than under the Eiffel Tower.

Those stumbling blocks we find also in most Catholic countries where the glorification of poverty on earth is the prayer and the ticket for the assurance of beatitude in heaven.  We find them last but not least in the Caribbean that has absorbed the slave mentality of discrimination and rejection that stopped the people of the Caribbean from becoming as rich as those of the Mediterranean in spite of its proximity with and its access to the largest market in the world, the United States.

In deconstructing the path to growth and development in Haiti, I thought I should start by the first demarche if we want to erect a stepping stone that will sustain never-ending wealth.  In fact, failure and disaster have happened every time the first step has not been taken by the framers of aid, national or international, in devising strategies to bring a country from absolute poverty to incremental wealth creation.  The examples abound in Africa, Mali, Congo, and Somalia; in the Middle East, Iraq, Egypt and Libya.  No one has thought about creating first a culture of appurtenance and the acceptance of that concept by all.  It is alright for everybody in a given country to become relatively rich through education, creativity, diligence and economic incubation.

Poverty and opportunity

Haiti is like Iraq or Afghanistan, where millions (if not billions) have been spent with no visible outcome.  The reason is simple.  The structural foundation of a country willing to continue to build together a nation is not there.  We find only separate entities profiting of the chaos for pulling their own bricks from the edifice to construct their own shacks as such the culture of poverty is spread as cancer in all the strata of the society.  Here are some vignettes of the culture of poverty in Haiti:

• The businessman who establishes himself in a town which is not his home city has no right to prosper.  He is a carpetbagger he should go back where he came from.

• The successful slum dweller who succeeds through hard labor must leave his surroundings, otherwise he is a target for abuse, jealousy, envy and irrational demands from the neighbors.

• The international organizations or even the government in helping the poor must provide the least and the worst because it is given not acquired.

• The patriarchal plot that must divide in small parcels that are unsustainable for any one of the clan family.

All these are feeble lights into the panoramic vista of a country crawling into the age of subsistence while the rest of the world is advancing in the age of phenomenal wealth building.

It is important to note that the decade of the 1970s was for the entire world the demarcation when extreme wealth by a few has left behind crumbs and poverty for the large majority of the rest.

It remains, though some countries like Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, China and Japan, in fact the whole South East Asia (with the exception of Catholic Philippines), has developed a culture of abundance.  The countries with a Germanic cultural tradition such as Austria, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries, and of course Germany, have taken steps to create not only a culture of appurtenance, but have provided an umbrella where incremental wealth production is the lot for everybody.

This umbrella includes but is not limited to excellent health coverage for all, the best education at all levels, elementary, secondary and university, promoting talent, innovation as well as wellness as a public policy.

By contrast, Haiti is the biggest waster of its human resources.  You find its people all over the Caribbean trying to fend for themselves, seeking a friendlier sky to put up their tents.

The example of President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic asking pardon for its people and for the Dominican Supreme Court for the humiliation to the young Haitians who only are seeking the bread of education says a lot.

This story written about Haiti could also be a story written about the United States, when the mayor in waiting of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who may be succeeding the billionaire debonair Mayor Mike Bloomberg, on his way out, is talking about filling the gap between the tale of two cities: the New York city of the very rich and the one of the ever-growing poor population.

It is the story of the entire United States that must make a decision whether it will let its tired and wretched population fend for itself or whether the mandate of President Barack Obama includes a new deal, a fair deal for the 11 million illegal immigrants, for the 40 million black population and for the 45 million white, Hispanics and others vegetating under the poverty umbrella.

Haiti, after its several essays of finding its place in the sun of wealth creation for all, is still crawling in misery amongst most.  Before its epic story of 1804, Haiti was known as the Pearl of the Antilles because by itself it provided 60 percent of the wealth consumed in France.  After its independence it has known only three feeble instances of wealth creation.

It happened right after independence, when the state was the driving force in commerce and in industry with the United States and with England.  It happened also under the kingdom of Henry Christophe in 1807, when being rich like a Creole was the aspiration of all young men from Newport, Rhode Island, to Baltimore, Maryland.  There was also an accumulation of wealth (Haiti exported more than 85 million of pounds of bananas every year to the United States) right before the demise of the banana industry by the Dumarsais Estime Administration in 1946 that politicized the marketing branch of the export commerce, killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Haiti’s population, the majority of which are peasants (85 percent) living in the mountains or in the slums of the capital or the main cities, is suffering the burden of extreme poverty without a guiding light in the horizon.  The culture of poverty for that segment of the population is endemic, intergenerational and imposed upon them by the civil society, the government and the international organizations.


The earthquake of January 12, 2010 was supposed to be the eureka that would change the mentality to start creating a space for wealth creation for all but, because of the lack of leadership from the then Haitian government, Haiti returned to its status quo ante.  The housing built with the funding offered through the international community has been no larger than a chicken cage.  The culture of subsistence returned with a vengeance, metastasizing among the entire population.

Where do we go from there?  How to jumpstart the culture of wealth creation for all?  The Haitian government, as well as the international community, must devise a philosophy of appurtenance where the substandard fate of the 85 percent of the population is a concern for the remaining 15 percent.  It must be done so, not by threat from or intimidation by the majority against the minority.  It should start with education for all, stopping the intergenerational degradation at its basis.  It should also start with the belief that each citizen of Haiti is an asset whose potential creativity must be unleashed for their own wealth and for the wealth of the entire nation.

Making Haiti a maquiladora is not the solution to bring the country into the path of wealth creation.  Will the leaders of Haiti understand that Singapore, Malaysia, Switzerland or Barbados are the models to follow if they want to make Haiti wake up from a sleeping giant to become again the Pearl of the Antilles?

I have called for the culture of wealth and abundance to be taken by CARICOM and ACS as a public policy practice in the op-ed titled: “The ACS and the V Summit, the Declaration of Petionville”.  If only they would follow up!

The good Pope Francis has also called on the princes of the Catholic Church “to feel responsible for both souls and bodies... we need great freedom, no discrimination, no demagoguery and lots of love.  We need rules of conduct and also, if necessary, direct intervention from the state to correct, the more intolerable inequalities.”  The pontiff could not be clearer.  The Catholic culture of poverty in Haiti to gain heaven upon death is uncalled for.  Living like a monk in a setting fit for a prince is more in tune with the doctrine of Pope Francis.

Last but not least, France must recognize it has bequeathed a patrimony or a legacy of a culture of poverty throughout its own midst and throughout its former colonies, including Haiti.  Steps must be taken; funds must be allocated (through the Francophonie and its foreign aid) to develop the culture of appurtenance and the culture of wealth creation amongst the population.

Otherwise, irrelevance is closely associated with the concept of the Grand French family of nations!

Note: Haiti is featuring this weekend, as every year at this time, an extravaganza Artisanat en fetes that demonstrates the Haitian genie in creativity.  Yet, it is only a national event that did not yet reach the attention of the global buyers of the best stores of this modern world.

• Jean H. Charles LLB, MSW, JD is a syndicated columnist with caribbeannewsnow.com.  He can be reached at jeanhcharles@aol.com and followed for past essays at caribbeannewsnow/haiti.  Published with the permission of caribbeannewsnow.com.

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