Creole economics: The case of the ‘Haitian dollar’

In the contemporary world we often think of economic systems as having little to do with local cultural practices. Shell money and barter have long been replaced with state-issued fiat money, customs houses and large-scale transnational trade.

If we do think about financial practices as having a cultural edge, we are probably most likely to focus on consumption, where local cultures have obvious influences on purchasing practices, or on the informal economy, where ‘street culture’ dictates the everyday running of distribution systems.

A great example of the latter is the ‘creole economics’ of Martinique. In her book of the same name, Katherine E. Browne describes how, despite its economy being dominated by France, locals of Martinique across all classes engage in the informal economy in ways that are decidedly creole.

She argues that while their economy seems to promote practices of making money on the side, it cannot be reduced to just a series of purely economic decisions by rational actors. Rather, undeclared income-generating activities, such as selling clothing out of a van or importing consumer goods to sell to one’s friends, are also done for the attainment of status.

Browne suggests, like other scholars of the Caribbean, that the institution of slavery and indentured labour created cultural institutions out of values of freedom and independence, especially of ‘being one’s own boss’. Thus Creole men and women gain recognition from their peers by flouting authority and demonstrating cunning.

In other countries, imported economic systems can become incorporated into local cultures in interesting and enduring ways. In Haiti, this takes the form of the curious case of the Haitian dollar.  

"What?", I hear you ask, "Isn't Haiti's currency the gourde?"

Yes it is, but outside of banks and telecommunications companies you are more likely to hear Haitians count in this other, imaginary currency. One Haitian dollar is equal to five gourdes.

The Haitian dollar doesn’t exist in material form, and it never did, yet supermarket shelves price goods in Haitian dollars and traders on the street count in Haitian dollars while handing over gourdes. General everyday conversation is more often in Haitian dollars than the national currency. A typical exchange can go like this:

Customer: How much is that pineapple?

Vendor: Three dollars.

Customer: Here is four Haitian dollars (handing over a twenty gourde note)

Vendor: That’s one dollar change (handing over a five gourde coin).

Just to make things all the more confusing, vendors rarely specify that they mean Haitian  dollars. This is sometimes applied as a clever sleight of hand to trick unwitting tourists, who assume that it means US dollars and thereby pay eight times more than the actual market price.

So, where did this imaginary currency come from? Why do Haitians insist on counting in a measure that does not actually exist? It stems from the times when the Haitian gourde was tied to the greenback at a rate of five to one. Haitians got used to counting in both currencies simultaneously, so when the gourde was floated in 1989, they just continued the practices that they were used to.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is debatable. On the one hand, it seems like one of many examples of the general lack of standardization and state control that is the Haitian economy.

In Port-au-Prince, within a few minutes you can visit legal, registered, and even large chain businesses who price and sell in gourdes, Haitian dollars, or US dollars. The largest bakery chain, Epi D'or, sells in gourdes but uses the Euro sign on their receipts to indicate the currency used. Presumably these machines were imported unadapted from France.

Haitian Market Vendor Using Large Tin to Measure Onions. Photo by Erin Taylor
Haitian market vendor using a large tin to measure onions

Around the country, there is no standard system of weights and measures in place, which makes trading between regions difficult.

The common measures that the anthropologist Sidney Mintz recorded in the 1950s–ceramic cups and marmite tins of two different sizes–are still the most common way of measuring staples such as beans and rice. Because it is commonly known that there are 48 marmite tins of rice in a sack, market vendors can be reluctant to buy bags of rice that have a different volume to the standard.

Until recently, it was generally only possible to buy whole fish, not parts of fish. Since fish vary in size, each one had to be personally inspected by the buyer for a price to be agreed upon. All of these variations, while interesting to the anthropologist, present significant barriers to trade and economic growth.

However, there is one up-side to the cultural curiosity that is the case of the Haitian dollar. Haitians of every ilk are really, really good at arithmetic. Accustomed to counting in three currencies day in and day out, they are fast and accurate at making calculations.

In fact, Mintz’s work showed that they are adept at altering quantities as well: they are brilliant traders. This, I believe, is one of the reasons why many Dominicans have commented to me that the Haitians are a smart and savvy people, the other reason being that Haitians are linguistically skilled up as well.

Ultimately their seemingly irrational cultural quirks render them excellent entrepeneurs because they know how to adapt to, and take advantage of, multiple systems. What they actually lack is infrastructure and capital to expand their businesses, and they could quite possibly do with advice as to how to target new markets. Creole economics do not need to be reprogrammed; they need space to expand and flourish.