Following the Haitian Revolution that ended in 1804, France, the colonial power, reportedly demanded today’s equivalent of $21 billion from Haiti as compensation for the “loss” it sustained when the rebellious slaves freed themselves. Enslavement of blacks was a common practice in parts of the Western world then, and with no global body to regulate international behavior, such as what the United Nations does to some extent now, that absurdity persisted in Haiti. It wasn’t until 1947 that the country finished paying its “debt” to France.

That tragic history is largely responsible for Haiti’s current predicament. As if that wasn’t enough, the country is also extremely vulnerable to natural disasters. It has been struck by a series of major earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods throughout its history. The 2010 earthquake caused an estimated 250,000 deaths and displaced 1.5 million people from their homes. It also destroyed much of Haiti’s infrastructure. Then in 2016, Hurricane Matthew inflicted additional misery on the island. The country is nowhere near full recovery from these latest disasters.

According to the World Bank, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with over 6 million (53 percent) of its people living below the poverty line on less than US$2.41 a day. Nearly a quarter of the country’s population is said to fall below the extreme poverty line of US$1.23 per day. The World Bank’s Human Capital Index estimates that Haitian children born today will be only 45 percent as productive when they grow up as they would be if they enjoyed full education and health.     

When major natural disasters occur anywhere in the world, they often generate global responses. Nations that are archenemies put aside their differences to mobilize resources to help victims, and collaborate in various ways to maximize those relief efforts. Such actions portray the best of humanity. However, there are occasions when the picture is sadly less flattering.

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, Haiti received over $16 billion in donations from governments, international organizations, and private donors to support reconstruction efforts. Numerous questions have been raised in the ensuing years about whether all that money did much good for ordinary Haitians. Some relief agencies were accused of squandering much of the funds they received. While there may be some disagreements with respect to those claims, what is not in doubt is that living conditions in Haiti now are as bad as they have ever been.

Ordinarily, the adversity that Haitians have faced throughout their history would strongly bind the nation’s people together. It should have served as a powerful motivator for the country’s political leaders to take their governing responsibilities seriously, by setting the right priorities and channeling scarce resources toward critical needs. The reality, unfortunately, has been the complete opposite.

Rampant corruption is a constant feature of the Haitian political landscape. Voters have repeatedly gotten rid of one government out of frustration only to find themselves with a new one that is even more corrupt. Increasingly, Haitians have become convinced that the political elite’s corruption and mismanagement are the most important drivers of the country’s grim socio-economic situation today. Thousands of ordinary citizens have been out in the streets lately, demanding accountability and better services from their government.

The overwhelming majority of people know that when they arrive at an accident scene, they are supposed to help victims, not steal their personal belongings and walk away. Common decency dictates that. While most people adhere to this noble principle, there are sadly some unscrupulous individuals who violate it. They see nothing wrong with stealing from the most vulnerable. Their actions are particularly cruel if they can afford not to steal.

Most ordinary Haitians are not much different from accident victims. They have suffered both physical and emotional injuries during and after the endless series of natural disasters that have hit their country. For that reason, they deserve to be treated as such. Anyone who steals from them should be viewed in the same light as someone who removes a wallet from the pocket of a bleeding accident victim and runs away, leaving him or her to die.

Essentially, that is how the Haitian elites look like, with their constant looting of resources meant to alleviate the suffering of their impoverished compatriots. Corruption is indeed a global problem, but it is especially galling in a country like Haiti because of its history and the depth of despair within the society. By virtue of their socio-economic status, those elites don’t need to steal to survive. So why do they do it? It is the age-old question with no easy answers.

The world failed Haiti once, by allowing a foreign power to impose an undue burden that helped cripple the island’s economy. Certainly, there have been other adverse external influences on Haiti in the last several decades, but the enemy is largely within now and must be confronted. Just as accident victims are sometimes so wounded that they are unable to help themselves, so it is that ordinary Haitians require assistance to fend off the heartless individuals who take advantage of them. The international community should use the aid it provides, which Haiti badly needs now and will continue to for some time, as leverage to demand clean government. Interventions in recent years by the U.S. government and others to help improve governance have mostly been ineffective, but that should not deter future efforts.

It is common nowadays for the entrenched elite in dysfunctional countries to use national sovereignty as an excuse to repel such external pressure. The global community shouldn’t fall for that trick in Haiti. Too many lives are at stake.