In 2019, a protracted crisis in Haiti escalated with a fuel crisis sparking protests, violence, and food shortages. It also blocked access for humanitarian organizations. More than half of the country’s 11 million citizens who live under the poverty line were hit especially hard by these factors.

Unfortunately, conditions have not improved over the last two years with COVID-19, additional lockdowns, political instability that resulted in the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, and (most recently) the August 2021 earthquake.

Many Haitians are still facing repercussions from Hurricanes Tomas (2010) and Matthew (2016), the last major earthquake in 2010, and a severe drought that has further compromised the island nation’s water resources. There’s more to unpack in a situation that has gone largely ignored over the last few years. Here are 5 things to know about the Haiti crisis in 2021.

1. Haiti has the highest hunger rates in the Western Hemisphere — and it’s getting worse

In an earlier version of this article written in 2019, we noted that 35% of Haiti’s population, some 3.7 million people, were going hungry. That year, Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) reports estimated that the number could rise to 4 million by March of 2020 — and that was before the food insecurity impacts of COVID-19.

Haiti has now surpassed that number, and as of the beginning of 2021, 4.4 million Haitians suffered from food insecurity. While this can be attributed in part to the conflict and social unrest of 2019, that wasn’t the only factor: The effects of climate change, exacerbated by El Niño winds in the first half of 2019, contributed to a drought that reduced harvests by 12%. Meanwhile, food prices have risen by as much as 30% year-over-year due to inflation. A recent World Food Programme report estimated that a working person in Haiti paid 35% of their income on one meal, which would be like someone in New York paying $74 for lunch.

Among those hit hardest by hunger are Haitians living in rural areas — which are often harder to reach — and Haitians living in low-income urban districts, such as Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince.

2. Intergenerational poverty isn’t just family-to-family here

After nearly 13 years of conflict, Haiti gained its independence from France in 1804. Prior to that, the country formerly known as Saint-Domingue spent three centuries as a French slave colony where the average life expectancy of its enslaved peoples was just 21 years. The price of freedom, however, was steep: With the country’s plantations and infrastructure all but destroyed in the revolution, Haiti was also required to pay reparations to France in exchange for diplomatic recognition: 150 million gold francs, which France later reduced to 90 million (the equivalent today to nearly $20 billion).

Haiti paid these reparations to France from 1825 to 1947, taking out high-interest loans from American, German, and French banks to cover the cost (approximately 80% of its national budget each year). This cycle of debt put Haiti in a vulnerable context with regards to politics and leadership, and left everyday Haitians shouldering much of the financial burdens, passing on poverty from one generation to the next.

A minority of the population has benefitted from the creation of wealth, Concern Haiti Country Director Kwanli Kladstrup explained in 2019, “however the majority of Haiti — especially young people — continue to be marginalized, feel disenfranchised with no education or economic prospects, and live in poor conditions with limited access to basic social services and economic opportunity.”

3. Many Haitians are still recovering from the 2010 earthquake

On January 12, 2010, the area around Port-au-Prince was at the epicenter of a magnitude-7 earthquake; one of the world’s largest natural disasters on record. The scale of the earthquake was unprecedented in an urban setting, and killed over 200,000 people. It also displaced 1.5 million, destroyed 250,000 homes, and 30,000 commercial buildings.

Many families are still living in informal settlements as they rebuild their lives, following an initially large international response towards recovery that many commissions and organizations abandoned early on in the process. In recent years, funding and access have both been major issues for organizations like Concern, which are committed to long-term change and recovery. In 2019, the United Nations reported only meeting 30% of its funding goals for Haiti as many donors have fallen behind on financial commitments in the face of political insecurity.

While the 2021 earthquake’s epicenter was further west from Port-au-Prince (which felt the quake but sustained no major damage), the humanitarian and financial repercussions will be felt throughout the country.

A 6-years-old girl sits with her father while waiting for medical care at the general hospital of Les Cayes, Haiti following the August 2021
Cheslove Emile, 6 years old, sits with her father while waiting for medical care at the general hospital of Les Cayes following the August 2021 earthquake in the area. (Photo: Lucien Junior Telasmond / Concern Worldwide)

4. COVID hasn’t been the country’s biggest public health crisis

Cases of COVID-19 have been comparatively low in Haiti: As of August 15, 2021, the country had registered 20,507 cases and 576 deaths (over 14,000 vaccines had been at least partially administered by this time as well). However, that hasn’t resulted in a clean bill for the country’s public health system in recent years.

The 2010 earthquake led to a cholera outbreak in Haiti that began in October of that year, due largely to the destroyed infrastructure that limited access to clean water. The country’s cholera cases peaked in 2011, with over 350,000 people exhibiting symptoms. By the end of 2018, nearly 10% of the country’s population had contracted cholera at some point, and 9,700 died. Access to clean water remains an issue in Haiti, with approximately two thirds of people lacking access to basic sanitation.

A young man from Cité Soleil, Port au Prince, sits at a training and mentoring session for people taking part in Concern’s Urban Integrated Program in Haiti
Berne Fransely of Cité Soleil, Port au Prince, at a training and mentoring session for people taking part in Concern’s Urban Integrated Program. This section of the program is designed to assist them with income-generating activities. It is modeled on the Graduation program. (Photo: Kieran McConville / Concern Worldwide)

5. There’s a chance to prevent future violence

The contributing factors to Haiti’s crisis also contribute to a rise in the country’s levels of extreme poverty. This in turn creates a vicious cycle of dissatisfaction, deprivation, and desperation. Violence in cities like Port-au-Prince is borne out of this frustration but, ultimately, only exacerbates the situation.

While getting urgent help to those who need it most is at the top of most humanitarian agendas, the larger picture reveals that we need to make greater policy changes towards climate response, resilience, and climate justice, while also helping Haitians develop more sustainable livelihoods, stronger infrastructure, and greater opportunities for education.

As Kwanli Kladstrup notes: “Prevention of future violence, and sustained support for the most vulnerable — especially children — should be our guiding principles to ensure the next generation does not pursue violence as its only option. The potentially violent actors of tomorrow are the children of today. Therefore, it is most important that their rights to education, good health, and protection are fulfilled; and right now that is just not happening.”

Learn more about Concern's work in Haiti — and how you can help

Concern in Haiti

Concern has worked in Haiti since 1994, when we responded to Hurricane Gordon. We’ve been involved in emergency response ever since, including those to the 2010 earthquake, Hurricane Tomas, and Hurricane Matthew. Some of our key activities include:

  • Youth training with young leaders to encourage the next generation of Haitians to use peaceful dialogue and debate in lieu of violence
  • Urban child protection encouraging communities to understand the consequences of violence against children, targeting 500 extremely poor households
  • Emergency response including the 2018 floods caused by heavy rains, natural disasters, and climate change
  • Life skills provided to 400 of the most vulnerable members of the community so that they may increase their income and support their families

Concern works in Cité Soleil, one of the most vulnerable areas of Port-au-Prince, which is also being hit hard by violence and exposure to numerous hazards, all of which puts more children at risk. Our project “Timoun djanm Jodi, sosyete djanm demen” (“Children standing tall today for a strong society tomorrow”) aims to transform the futures of children in extreme poverty by focusing on children, their families, and the community at large.

Support our work in Haiti