Talk about blaming the victim. Pat Robertson says the misery inflicted by the Haitian earthquake is payback for “a pact with the devil.” Rush Limbaugh blames the nation’s “communist” leadership. And according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, Haiti’s desperate poverty is a result of "progress-resistant cultural influences."
Throughout the media coverage, “overpopulation” is hyped as another explanation for Haiti’s poverty and vulnerability to disaster. One former U.S. diplomat told CNN that Haiti is overpopulated because its people know nothing of birth control. The mainstream news media subtly reinforce this theme with frequent references to Haiti’s high fertility rate (four children per woman) and large youthful population (nearly 40 percent of which is aged 15 and under). It’s even more overt in cyberspace, where commenters openly blame population growth for Haiti’s troubles—see, for example, comment #5 here.
So, is Haiti “overpopulated”? To what extent is high fertility and rapid population growth an underlying cause of Haitian poverty? To answer that question, we first need to unpack the concept of “overpopulation.”
When we say that a community or nation is overpopulated, we imply that its numbers have grown too large in relation to the stock of available resources. But here’s the rub: resources are often distributed so inequitably that it’s impossible to determine how many people they can support.
In many poor countries, subsistence farmers work hard to coax a living from tiny parcels of land, while large plantations—owned by agribusiness or local elites—produce bountiful harvests for export. Rapid population growth worsens the plight of the subsistence farmers, whose holdings grow smaller with each succeeding generation, but inequity—rather than population growth—is at the heart of the problem.
This is certainly true in Haiti. Rapid population growth magnifies the problems of poor Haitians; high fertility means more mouths to feed, more young people to educate and employ. But to understand the root causes of Haitian poverty, we must remember the nation’s sordid history of exploitation, corruption and misrule.
The story of Haiti’s immiseration is a long one, whose villains include French colonizers and Haitian elites. It may be hard to believe, but Haiti—now the poorest country in the Western hemisphere—was once the richest colony in the world. In the 18th century, the “Pearl of the Antilles” produced prodigious crops of sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton, and indigo—accounting for half of France’s GNP. Fortunes were made from the richness of Haiti’s soil and the labor of its people—slaves imported from Africa and literally worked to death. Most of that wealth left the island, never to return.
Also gone forever is a good part of the nation’s soil: while wealthy interests helped themselves to the fertile bottom lands, poor farmers were forced to cultivate steep hillsides, and the resulting deforestation and erosion has washed much of Haiti’s once-rich soil into the sea.
The U.S. also played a starring role in Haiti’s impoverishment. Soon after the slave revolt that established Haiti as an independent nation in 1804, Thomas Jefferson, fearful that such revolts might prove contagious, led an international boycott of the fledgling country. We directly occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, with U.S. bankers reaping the profits from Haiti’s still plentiful harvests. Later, we propped up the brutal (but reliably anti-communist) Duvalier dictatorships.
Centuries of such exploitation have left Haiti in dire shape. We’ve heard the mind-numbing statistics: nearly three-quarters of Haitians live on less than $2 per day; two-thirds of workers are not formally employed; fully half of Haitian adults are illiterate. Even before the earthquake, Haitians were reduced to eating cakes made of mud to stave off hunger.
Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that Haiti’s population growth is a symptom,not a cause, of its poverty. Over the last half century, population growth rates have slowed in most parts of the world, but they remain high in places like Haiti, where poverty is severe and the status of women is low. Why? Where child mortality rates are high and social “safety nets” nonexistent, poor couples have many children to ensure that some will survive, and to help provide for them in old age. And, where women are denied education, opportunity and the full legal and social rights of citizenship, they must rely on childbearing as a source of status and security.
This point is made powerfully in M. Catherine Maternowska’s Reproducing Inequities: Poverty and the Politics of Population in Haiti. Maternowska worked for a dozen years in the Haitian slum of Cité Soleil, where she documented the failure of a well-intentioned effort to promote family planning. As Helen Epstein writes in a review of Reproducing Inequities:
…One reason the program failed was that the precarious economic situation in Cité Soleil had made fairly regular childbearing a virtual necessity for many women. In order to survive, poor women had to rely on men, and the only way to secure a man’s loyalty was by bearing his children. But Haitian men had problems of their own. Most were unemployed or were forced to compete for the small number of day-labor jobs working on building sites or hauling charcoal in the slums. These difficulties, rather than discouraging the men from having children, apparently challenged their sense of masculinity, sometimes prompting macho demands that their women not use contraception because it would make them "loose" or promiscuous.
You just keep having children. This is how you keep a man," Sylvia, mother of twelve, told Maternowska. "If you don’t give [children] to him, he doesn’t give [money] to you…. And sometimes even if you do give, you lose anyhow. Life is hard."
Of course, Haitians desperately need family planning and reproductive health services. Only a quarter of Haitian women use modern methods of contraception, and—partly as a result—the island nation has the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the western hemisphere. Increased contraceptive use would improve public health and reduce pressure on Haiti’s severely depleted resources. But, as Maternowska learned, it’s not enough to simply offer family planning services. Programs must address the underlying inequities—gender and economic—that lead people to want large families. Change is possible, however: Maternowska found that Haitian family planning programs worked best where they were linked to broader efforts to improve people’s lives. One project, which combined pig farming, small business loans and family planning, reported much more positive results than the stand-alone family planning project in Cité Soleil.
“Overpopulation” is no more the root cause of Haiti’s misery than Pat Robertson’s loopy “pact with the devil.” Yes, Haiti has high rates of population growth, which makes its environmental and social problems more difficult to solve. And yes, Haitians need access to quality family planning and reproductive health care services—as all people do. But the real underlying causes of Haiti’s despair are poverty and injustice. If we hope to help the Haitian people build a nation that is stable, self-sufficient and resilient, we must address those root causes.