Haiti is often applauded for having been the richest colony in the Americas because during the days of slavery and colonization its national production was very high. But national production is not the sole measure of wealth. Today, Haiti is frequently derided as the poorest nation in the hemisphere, based on its low national production or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) even though GDP is not a measure of wealth. The Nobel Prize laureate, Simon Kuznets, who created the formula for calculating GDP was careful to point out "the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP."
GDP is a rough measure of a country's imports versus its exports. Apparently, Haiti's imports far exceed its exports and so its GDP is low.Under French rule, or during slavery, the reverse was true. The population consumed nearly nothing and exported nearly everything. As measured by its GDP, Haiti was considered rich under slavery but poor today even though the Haitian people are far better off today than they were as slaves.A large proportion of Haitians are now landowners, work independently, have access to education, have greater life expectancy, and live with their family.Measuring a population's well being by GDP alone misses all of this because GDP does not take into consideration quality of life as a measure of wealth.If quality of life is not to be taken into account when calculating a country's wealth, then what is wealth for?
Although GDP attempts to measure goods and services produced, it is unable to tract services where money is not exchanged. The labor provided by members of kòve also called mazinga or konbit is not tracked by GDP. Kòve is a system of bartering labor thatleads to the production of many goods and services.The countless hours of labor provided by community members bartering goods and services such as childcare, tutoring, home repair, housekeeping, laundry, cooking, yard maintenance, hair care, and health care is also not accounted for in the country's GDP.
Because GDP is a poor measure of wealth,numerous economists argue forcefully for abandoningits use. They have pointed out that GDP does not take into account additional quality of life issues such as maternal mortality, infant mortality, age of retirement, environmental degradation and quality of air.
There is poverty in Haiti because too many of our citizens do not have access to safe drinking water, to electricity, to reliable health care,and to a safe and decent home.However, to say that Haiti is the poorest country today in the Americas based on itsGDP is dubious. GDP does not measure many of Haiti's assets: The beauty of its landscape and clear skies; its high number of self-employed workers; its large number of people who own the land and home where they reside; its sense of community, communal workforce, and family centered lifestyle; its low crime rate in the countryside and even in the cities as compared to other nations; its rich cultural, historical, and religious heritage which intrigues the world. These are just a few of the things that enrich the quality of life in Haiti and discounts GDP as the sole measure of our wealth.
As stated by a recent visitor to Haiti, Alan Seaborn of the Detroit Muscle Crew, "It's so easy to look at everything they don't have. We need to be careful not to miss everything they do have."
This article was originally written on May 18, 2010