Haiti is a land of stark contrast. There are breathtaking mountain vistas and pigs rooting in huge piles of trash. You will meet people overflowing with joy and people mired in despair. There is a lot to love about Haiti and a lot of things that clearly need to change.
The Republic of Haiti has a population of around 11 million people and is the size of the state of Maryland. The official languages are both Haitian Creole and French, with French considered the language of the educated. It lies on the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. Haiti has a lot in common with Sub-Saharan Africa, the land of origin for most Haitian ancestors. Haitian cuisine, language, religion, and culture all have deep West African roots. Haiti’s people are also very young – the average age is only 23.
Life in Haiti has always been a struggle. First it was a struggle against the French for freedom from slavery and their independence, which they gained in 1804. Then it was a struggle for political freedom from a series of kings, dictators, and corrupt governments. All along it has been a struggle against the oppressive ignorance of the Voodoo religion.
Today, Haiti ranks 169 out of 189 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index (an evaluation of life expectancy, education, and per capita income). It is very difficult to run a legitimate business in Haiti for reasons ranging from poor infrastructure to ineffective contract and property rights enforcement. The World Bank ranks it 179 out of 190 for ease of doing business. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
One interesting statistic is better in Haiti than it is in the US – the suicide rate is lower. This means that, on average, Haitians are better at dealing with their poverty than Americans are at dealing with their wealth.
Despite these challenges, there have also been significant improvements in Haiti over the past few decades. Until the late 1980’s Haiti had violent dictators, today they have a democratically elected, although flawed, government. Life expectancy, literacy, and other metrics of health and education have all improved dramatically over the past few decades. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty has declined since 2000 (from 31% to 24%). Most importantly, the practice of Voodoo has declined and the church has grown. In the 1950’s, about 12% of Haiti was Christian, today that is closer to 30%.
Non-profits and missionaries have played a large role in Haiti’s improvements – not as the star of the show, but as a key supporting player to the initiative of the Haitian people. Around 90% of Haiti’s primary education is privately funded; not supported by the Haitian government. Most churches, schools, and clinics in Haiti are locally owned and operated. They can subsist on their own, but they can thrive with a little bit of intelligently applied outside help.
While there are a lot of non-profits in Haiti, the total resources they have are small relative to the massive problems they are trying to solve. For comparison, in the US, domestic non-profits provide an average of $5,550 of services per year, per American. In Haiti, domestic and international non-profits combined spend closer to $90 per year, per Haitian. Add that to the fact that in most developed countries, government spending provides most of the basic infrastructure, education, healthcare, and poverty alleviation and you will concur that the problems in Haiti are not over-funded.
Non-profits, like governments, can cause harm with poorly structured handouts that dis-empower people. Good intentions are not enough. We must enable sustainable solutions by listening to the people we are trying to help and buying and hiring locally whenever possible. Effective programs must be structured to educate and equip – not to provide endless relief.
At GVCM, we also believe that the local church is the key to solving Haiti’s problems. The church is connected to the local community to accurately identify pressing needs, integrated with natural accountability, and empowers people to come together and solve their own problems. Most importantly, the church has the good news of Christ’s redemption from sin and death. That news provides hope for the future and motivation for today.
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” Philippians 3:20