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Some of the reasons for poverty in the West Indian country of Haiti include lack of education and job opportunities. Haiti is commonly regarded as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Although a small elite group of Haitians are extremely wealthy, an estimated 80 percent of the country live in abject poverty and rely on international food aid. Corrupt government, unsanitary conditions, and degradation of the land have been common in Haiti for years. An earthquake that destroyed its capital, Port-au-Prince, on 12 January 2010, has amplified the poverty there.
Although the poverty in Haiti has been present for nearly two centuries, some might consider the culture and history of the country to be quite rich. While under French rule in the 1700s, Haiti accounted for roughly one quarter of France's total gross national product. Historians sometimes say that the devastation Haiti experienced during its war for independence from French slavery in 1804 still contributes to the country's poverty today.
Haiti was the first country in the Americas to abolish slavery. The French government nevertheless required Haiti to pay 150 million francs before they would recognize the country's independence. Rather than risk a trade blockade from nations that still held slaves, including the United States, Haiti finally paid the indemnity in full in 1947. This payment, along with stalled trade relations with many countries, left Haiti deeply in debt with an extremely crippled economy.
After the revolution, the Haitian people elected to liberalize land ownership instead of returning to the sugar plantation system operated by the French. Although no longer slaves and now able to own land individually, the small peasant farmers had reduced earning power due to inefficient operations. Some experts believe that this individualistic attitude, which endures today, might be encouraging the poverty in Haiti to continue.
Over the years, corrupt regimes ruled with violence and plunged many Haitians into further poverty. Francois "Papa Doc" and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who ruled the country from 1957 until 1986, are estimated to have killed 30,000 Haitians, repressed the economy and likely caused many educated professionals to leave Haiti. The Dualiers and their successor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, might have rendered the country so politically and economically unstable that international investment became largely unavailable. In 2006, a United Nations force was sent to Haiti to keep order, although drug-trafficking, violent crime, and deepened poverty remain.
The average Haitian worker earns less than $70 US Dollars (USD) per month, and the majority live on the equivalent of $1 or $2 USD per day. The life expectancy in Haiti is 52 years, and about 10 percent of babies born there die before age 4. More than half of the country is illiterate, and skilled labor is often scarce. Infrastructure, such as roads, technology, and energy sources, which are typically necessary to sustain economic development, are not widely established in Haiti.
Most Haitians may not have access to clean drinking water, sanitation, and electricity. Safe water sources are available to only the wealthiest Haitians, and many of the poor die from poisonous, bacteria-laden water and related diseases. It is estimated that Haiti uses less than 8 percent of its renewable water resources, and only about 13 percent of its citizens have access to electricity, which is needed to clean and move water throughout the country. Haiti has only three small thermal power plants and no refineries, so it must rely on imported oil.
Forest, coral reef, and land degradation might also add to the poverty in Haiti. The main energy source in Haiti comes from chopping down trees so that the wood can be burned, resulting in deforested land. With the trees destroyed, the soil has become dangerously eroded, and mudslides are typical. Some of the soil has washed into the sea and damaged the coral reefs. Deforested land cannot withstand the tropical storms which frequently hit the country.