Everyone knows that since the year 2000, Haiti has endured repeated political and natural disasters, each of which has caused growth to plummet for a given period. What we now know, however, is that during this same period – in spite of these disasters -- Haiti has also managed to reduce extreme poverty. This represents significant progress and should be celebrated as an indicator of progress, and as evidence that with a continued push, Haiti could eliminate extreme poverty.
New data recently released by the National Poverty and Social Exclusion Observatory (ONPES) based on the Households Living Conditions Survey of the Haitian Statistic and IT Institute (IHSI) show that access to basic services has improved and extreme poverty declined from 31 percent to 24 percent since 2000. For this analysis, extreme poverty is defined as Haitians earning less than 42 gourdes per day (about US$1 dollar) and poverty is defined as Haitians earning less than 82 gourdes per day (about US$2).
Compared to 2000, the evidence shows that both income and access to services have improved. The biggest gains are in access to education, where the number of children enrolled in schools increased from 78 to 90 percent. Nonetheless, too many children still drop out of school or have to repeat grades, so there is an urgent need to address the quality of education. There has also been some improvement in access to sanitation, although access to adequate sanitation in rural areas remains very low, and improvements in access to reliable energy and tap water remain very modest.
Despite some success in addressing poverty, there is also cause for significant concern in the data. The Gini coefficient, which measures inequality of income, has been constant since 2001 at 0.61. This means that Haiti is still the country with highest income inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean, and one of the most inequitable countries in the world.
Urban areas have also fared much better than rural areas. In rural areas, where more than half the population still resides, the levels of extreme poverty have not changed and income inequality has increased. Access to healthcare, education, water, sanitation and electricity is also much lower in rural areas. The data also show that Haiti’s poor remain geographically concentrated in the North, where the North East and North West departments have an extreme poverty rate which exceeds 40 percent.
While progress in big cities – the Port-au-Prince area in particular - can be explained by an increase in better paid jobs in construction, manufacturing and services, and by higher levels of consumption fueled in part by aid and remittances, the slow progress in rural areas is due to a continued high dependence on farming where better yields, and better lives, remain dependent mostly on the fickle weather.
I have had the opportunity to travel to some of the poorest departments in the country. The contrast with the capital of Port-au-Prince is stark. Haitian families in the North and South West of the country still have to walk long distances over crumbling roads to clinics and schools. Only 16% of people in rural areas have access to improved sanitation, while 48% in cities do. They work hard to produce food, but watch it go bad before it reaches a market or can be consumed.
Yet, having this new data and analysis is extremely valuable for guiding public policy and should help the Government respond and continue to further reduce poverty. Clearly, this is essential, because while there has been progress, there are still 6.3 million Haitians living in poverty, and 2.5 million living in extreme poverty. Moreover, Haiti remains very vulnerable, not only to disasters and fragility, but also to the fact that some of this improvement is linked to high levels of assistance from international aid and the diaspora.
Nonetheless, to reduce extreme poverty in the wake of a devastating earthquake, damaging hurricanes and political fragility is a victory for the resilience of the Haitian people. And this victory should give us all hope that even greater, and more rapid, progress is possible in Haiti. If we can hold the course and use this analysis to guide policy, a Haiti without extreme poverty becomes a possibility.