Half a milennium of (neo)liberalism in Haiti

In 2008, the economist Joseph Stiglitz predicted the end of neoliberal philosophy as a result of the global financial crisis. Comparing the crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall, he argued that while many people had suspected for a long time that deregulation was a bad idea, the global financial crisis proved it:

It should be the end of neoliberalism. It should be the end of the view that deregulation and liberalization lead to economic efficiency. September 2008 should be to neoliberalism and market fundamentalism what the Fall of the Berlin Wall was to communism. Everybody understood that communism was flawed, but the Fall of the Berlin Wall defined it and made it clear.

But most people understood that neoliberalism was a flawed idea. My own research explained it. Experience showed it. But this is the dramatic evidence that will make it very difficult for people to say, I believe in deregulated markets.

He was not alone, although he was perhaps more confident than most. Economists, journalists, academics, and political commentators speculated whether citizens would continue to permit their states to liberalize markets, a process that had been happening for decades, and that many dated as beginning with what is popularly called the “Washington Consensus” since 1989.

From September 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement and its global spread appeared to support Stieglitz’s case. It appeared that people really were beginning to question en masse the dominant market ideology.

And yet, nothing really happened. The movement eventually died down, and the debate never really took off in the public sphere. To recover from the crisis, governments have been told to forget Keynesean economics and balance their own books. The effects of austerity measures have been felt keenly in many countries, including Portugal.

An ideology that markets are self-correcting and operate best without government interference lives on, despite ample evidence that deregulating financial markets has been catastrophic, and little evidence that austerity measures works.

Neoliberalism in anthropology

What does all this macroeconomics mean for anthropology? Quite a lot, given its history of using a political economy framework to understand how big issues impact the people whose cultures we wish to describe. This is particularly true in the Caribbean and South America, where issues of economy and power have been highly influential in shaping social and cultural life since the fifteenth century. If market liberalism is being deployed in new ways, this is absolutely anthropology’s business.

The problem, however, is that there is little global agreement as to what neoliberalism is, or if it even exists. As John Quiggin points out in his book Zombie Economics, the term is nowhere near as widely accepted as within the public sphere as it is within academia:

Together these ideas form a package which has been given various names: “Thatcherism” in the United Kingdom, “Reaganism” in the United States, “economic rationalism” in Australia, the “Washington consensus” in the developing world, and “neoliberalism” in academic discussions.[1]

Quiggin points out that most of these terms are used pejoratively, showing that it is critics who most feel the need to give it a name. Throughout his book, Quiggin uses the term “market liberalism” as the least value-laden descriptive term he can think of.

Among those who do use the term “neoliberalism,” the picture is not necessarily much clearer. Anthropologists do not necessarily agree on what neoliberalism is, or how it should be used as an anlytical concept. For Wacquant, neoliberalism is “an articulation of state, market, and citizenship” that involves a shift from regulating the economy and providing welfare to people, to regulating people in the service of the economy.[3]

However, Hilgers argues that Wacquant’s argument grew primarily out of his reflections upon North America and could not necessarily be applied to the whole world. Hilgers warns that “conceptions of the state in the neoliberal age are deeply shaped by the specificities of the states that they study”, and calls for anthropologists to take a more historically-informed approach to neoliberalism. He aslo suggests that we should differentiate between neolib[3] eralism as theory and neoliberalism as policy.

Hilgers refers to an article by James Ferguson, who argues that neoliberal policies and practices have had different effects in different places. At times they have been overridden by states, at times they have been beneficial, and at other moments what looks like a neoliberal development is not particularly neo at all.

For example, Ferguson argues that in Africa, structural adjustment was “largely a matter of old-style laissez-faire liberalism in the service of imperial capital” rather than neoliberalism. The adjustment instituted very few changes [4] in the arts of government.

I began to think about this in relation to Haiti. Once the wealthiest plantation economy in the Americas, and today the hemisphere’s poorest country, it is certainly ripe for political-economic analysis. Sometimes referred to as the “republic of NGOs,”[5] Haiti exhibits a high degree of what Anke Schwittay has called the “marketization of poverty,” also widely considered to be a neoliberal trend, part of a broader outsourcing of welfare provision.[6] But to what extent does neoliberalism help us to understand Haiti?

Neoliberal Haiti?

There is no doubt that Haiti has experienced neoliberalism, if we view it in terms of policy, paricularly regarding the implementation of the Washington Consensus. Structural adjustment policies instituted by the IMF, a hallmark of neoliberalism, were carried out in Haiti since the early 1980s. The lifting trade restrictions under Clinton eased the way for US rice and other products to enter the Haitian market in the 1980s, undercutting local production and crippling the agricultural industry (for which Clinton has publicly apologized).

In 1989, the Haitian gourde was floated, leading to massive devaluation of the currency and overnight inflation. This macroeconomic picture indicates a clear shift in economic and political policy, including the reduced role of the state in regulating the economy.

In 1995, under the presidency of Aristide, the Haitian government approved a plan to privatize nine of its enterprises as part of an “emergency economic recovery program” for Haiti.[7] The economy had been weakened under a United Nations trade embargo against the military government that had ousted Aristide in a coup in 1991.

Aristide himself had previously taken a strong stance against privatization, but the poor state of Haiti’s economy and industries, coupled with the pressure of the IMF and the World Bank, left little choice but to sell off state assets. Most of the enterprises to be privatized were either not operational at all, or operating very poorly.[8]

However, none of this is truly new. Rather, it is a continuation of international policies that have impacted Haiti since Colombus landed on the island in 1492. Slavery, reparations to France, and two US occupations are part of the practices of imperialism that have subordinated Haiti since its inception.

The danger of viewing Haiti through the lens of neoliberalism is to make its domination seem recent, and obscure the long history of “structural violence” that has produced and promulgated Haiti’s poverty.

Nor can we really say that neoliberal policies have caused a shift in citizen-state relations. The Haitian state has historically had little role to play in the lives of most Haitians, except perhaps in the major cities (such as the “Republic of Port-au-Prince”). Not is does there appear to be any discernable move towards a more punitive state, compared with the violences of the past (such as after the revolution and during Duvalier’s dictatorship).

Neoliberalism and development

Another manifestation of neoliberal thinking is visible in socioeconomic development programs that promote multilateral partnerships between NGOs, states, and companies. These projects often promote entrepreneurialism and individual success as their primary development goals.

As I have discussed in other blog post, telecommunincations is increasingly taking part in these kinds of development initiatives: Port-au-Prince’s streets are lined with Digicel-sponsored street signs, and mobile money is a commercial venture that is expected to increase economic growth.

Given Haitains’ low levels of trust in their government, their high levels of trust in Digicel, and the near-universal ownership of mobile phones, telecommunications appears to be an efficient vehicle for the delivery of social goods. And, indeed, I would argue that they are: market-based interventions do seem to work well in Haiti.

However, we must pause for thought and ask why this is the case. Second, it is worth remembering that, even if some neoliberal-style policies and programs work, this does not mean that they have been proved to be better for the Haitian context than any other form of governance, such as a Keynesean welfare state, because other forms have never really existed.

In fact, one could argue that if market liberalism work in Haiti, it is because the economy was created to be amenable to them. There is no triumph in the success of neoliberal policies in a state that has been fiscally handicapped from the start.

From a methodological perspective, we argue that “neoliberalism,” while a valuable concept, should be used with care. By tying up our analyses in too neat a package, we might miss the complexities and specificities of how neoliberal ideologies and policies play out in different contexts, as well as the power relations that have guided them over the course of history and empire.

This is a blogged-down version of a paper that was presented at the APA conference in Vila Real, 9-11 September 2013. It was co-authored with Heather Horst.


[1] Joseph Stiglitz in an interview with Kiyoshi Okoni, November 2008,
[2] Quiggin, J. 2012. Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us. Princeton University Press, 2012.
[3] Page 66 in Wacquant, L. 2012. Three Steps to a Historical Anthropology of Actually Existing Neoliberalism. Social Anthropology 20(1): 66–79.
[4] Page 80 in Hilgers, M. 2012. The Historicity of the Neoliberal State. Social Anthropology 20(1), 80–94.
[5] Page 173 in Ferguson, J. (2010). The Uses of Neoliberalism. Antipode, 41, 166–184.
[6] Schuller, M. 2007. Invasion or Infusion? Understanding the role of NGOs in contemporary Haiti. Journal of Haitian Studies, 96-119.
[7] Schwittay, A. 2011. The Marketization of Poverty. Current Anthropology 52(S3): S71–S82.
[8] The enterprises were the telephone company, the electricity company, the flour mill, the cement mill, the Port-au-Prince port, the Port-au-Prince airport, two banks, and an animal feed firm. See Wah, Tatiana. 1997. "Rethinking Privatization in Haiti: Implications from the Initial Experience." Journal of Haitian Studies 15-29.