How (and Why) We Calculated the Value of Haiti’s Payments to France


2022-05-25 11:30:05

On Sept. 9, Selam Gebrekidan, one of our colleagues on the project, traveled with me and Matt to southeast London to meet Victor Bulmer-Thomas, a British expert on Caribbean economies, and show him the spreadsheet. As I opened my laptop in his dining room, I felt nervous, fearing he would dismiss our tabulation as mere guesswork.

To our relief, he enthusiastically approved it.

I spent the next few weeks sharing my screen in online meetings with scholars who have studied Haiti’s debt. I showed them the spreadsheet and carefully detailed, cell by cell, my sources, and I listened to them place our numbers into historical perspective. A total of six academics, including the Haitian scholars Gusti-Klara Gaillard and Guy Pierre, vetted our tabulation.

The work, however, was far from over. The challenge then became to understand how paying out 112 million francs over decades had affected Haiti, and what kind of loss to its economic development that payout represented over time. One way to do so was to determine how much this money would be worth today had it remained in Haiti.

Some economists had tried to do just that in a research paper published in August, using a broad estimate of Haiti’s debt, so I drew from their methodology. I assumed that if that money had stayed in the Haitian economy, it would have, at a minimum, grown at a rate of return equal to Haiti’s real gross domestic product growth between 1825 and today.

Using estimates of Haiti’s G.D.P. in the 19th century that were provided by Simon Henochsberg, a French banker who studied Haiti’s public debt for his master thesis, I calculated the average annual growth rates, computed them with Haiti’s annual payment flows and found that the double debt could have added $21 billion to Haiti over time.

I spent weeks making video calls and exchanging long emails with economists like Ugo Panizza and Rui Esteves of the Geneva Graduate Institute to test the methodology — and being gently corrected on various formula errors. Matt and I also went to present our findings at the Paris School of Economics, where researchers grilled us.

We shared our analysis with 15 leading economists and financial historians. All but one agreed with our $21 billion estimate. Some said that it was within an acceptable range; others found it conservative and said that the long-term losses to Haiti might actually be higher.

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