Despite back-to-back hurricanes, food riots, devastating floods, and the hemisphere’s worst natural disaster nearly five years ago, the rate of extreme poverty in Haiti is declining, according to a new World Bank report.
But with 6.3 million out of 10 million Haitians still unable to meet their basic food needs, and another 2.5 million even worse off because they are living below the extreme poverty line, Haiti still remains among the poorest — and the most unequal —countries in Latin America, said the report titled Haiti: Investing in people to fight poverty.
The report is the first post-earthquake assessment of poverty in Haiti and was conducted in partnership with the National Observatory on Poverty and Social Exclusion (ONEPS). The results, analysts say, are based on a 2012 household survey and looks at changes since 2000.
Recognizing that the gains were led by increases in foreign aid after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, remittances and better paid construction jobs in Port-au-Prince, Bank analysts say the challenge today is ensuring that they lasts. They are calling on the Haitian government to provide more inclusive and efficient government policies to help improve better access to basic services, income opportunities and social protection.
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“Everybody agrees there has been a huge investment by government and by partners in social programs,” said World Bank Special Envoy Mary Barton-Dock, noting that 47 percent of households surveyed reported having received some type of aid. “The problem now is as aid declines, how do you sustain that?”
Barton-Deck and others say Haiti continues to lag behind the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, which have halved the number of people suffering from hunger, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
“Almost 60 percent of the population live on $2 a day and the richest 20 percent of households hold 64 percent of the total income in the country,” the Bank said. “These levels of income inequality place Haiti among the most unequal countries in Latin America and in the world.”
According to the report, slightly more than half of Haiti’s population lives in rural communities, and extreme poverty rates are greatest in the north in places like Port-de-Paix and Île de la Tortue in the northwest, where an extreme drought has increased food insecurity among the population.
“More than 80 percent of the extreme poor live in rural areas, where 38 percent of the total population is not able to satisfy its nutritional needs,” the report said, noting that rural communities are deeply dependent on agriculture.
Overall, the report points out, almost 70 percent of Haiti’s population is either poor or vulnerable to falling into poverty.
“Only 2 percent of the population consumes the equivalent of $10 a day which is the region’s income threshold for joining the middle class,” the report said.
After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook the ground on Jan. 12, 2010, nongovernmental organizations flew in to Port-au-Prince and camped inside tattered tent cities in the capital and surrounding cities while more than 50 foreign governments and international organizations sent representatives to New York to pledged $5.3 billion over the next two years at a United Nations donors conference to help rebuild Haiti.
As a result, many Haitians for the first time had access to potable water and sanitation, and the collapse of buildings and investments in new construction, meant jobs.
All of this, along with growth in telecommunications and transport jobs, have helped the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area see a drop in its extreme poverty level from 20 percent to five percent compared to 24 percent nationwide in 2012 from a high of 31 percent in 2000.
“With the large influx in aid in recent years, a lot of that has contributed to the strong reduction in poverty and a lot of that has been focused on Port-au-Prince where after all, a lot of the impact of the earthquake was worse,” said Barton Dock. “The sort-of growth sectors have also been focused on sectors, which are thriving in Port-au-Prince.”
Louise Cord, head of the Bank’s poverty team, said a large surge in public investments after the earthquake also contributed to the poverty reduction phenomenon that Haiti’s capital is seeing while remittances from relatives have also helped.
But with donors dragging their feet on pledges and overall donor aid dwindling, Cord said the “reduction in poverty needs to be closely watched because it could risk not being sustainable.”
Another trend analysts viewed in the survey is that of urbanization, which contradicts the push by the international community after the quake to decentralize Port-au-Prince. Instead, as more jobs became available in Port-au-Prince more people flocked there.
“We estimate that one in four persons of the current population in Port-au-Prince is not born in Port-au-Prince,” said Raju Singh, the Bank’s chief economist in Haiti. “People have not only moved to urban areas to seek opportunities but have also moved to urban areas simply to have access to basic services. We’re talking about education, we’re talking about health.”
The report found that poverty is an important barrier in Haiti to school enrollment and health service utilization. The majority of Haitians surveyed said cost is the main reason for keeping children out of school or not seeking medical care when sick.
For instance with fewer than 1 in 10 poor pregnant women benefiting from assisted delivery – compared to 7 in 10 among those who are better off —the poor are more likely to die during childbirth due to this limited access to maternal health services.
The report also found that access to sanitation and drinking water also remain low, especially in rural Haiti.
In 2012, two years after a deadly cholera outbreak, only 31 percent of Haitians had access to improved sanitation nationally compared to 16 percent in rural areas.
Access to improved sources of drinking water also faces a similar challenge. In urban areas it is 55 percent compared to 52 percent in rural communities.
But the news isn’t all bad.
The percentage of school-age children enrolled in school have risen from 78 percent in 2001 to 90 percent in 2012, making it the biggest gain of the last decade.
“That does not say however, what the quality of education is or whether it is sustainable,” Barton-Dock said. “The sustainability is a concern in a sense that it’s been made possible in part by the large increase in investments in foreign aid and remittances as well, and it’s going to be a challenge to maintain that.”