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

On September 9th, Selam Gebrekidan, one of our project colleagues, traveled with me and Matt to south-east London to meet Victor Bulmer-Thomas, a British expert on Caribbean economics, and show him the table. When I opened my laptop in his dining room, I was nervous, afraid he would dismiss our lineup as mere guesswork.

To our relief, he enthusiastically agreed.

I spent the next few weeks sharing my screen in online meetings with academics studying Haiti’s debt. I showed them the table and detailed, cell by cell, my sources and listened as they put our numbers into historical perspective. A total of six academics, including Haitian scholars Gusti-Klara Gaillard and Guy Pierre, reviewed our table.

But that was not the end of the work. The challenge then was to understand how the 112 million Swiss francs disbursement had impacted Haiti over decades and what kind of loss to its economic development that disbursement represented over time. One way to do that was to work out how much that money would be worth today if it had stayed in Haiti.

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

Using estimates of Haiti’s 19th-century GDP provided by Simon Henochsberg, a French banker who studied Haiti’s national debt for his master’s thesis, I calculated the average annual growth rates, plotted them against Haiti’s annual cash flows, and found that the debt was double that could have added $21 billion to Haiti over time.

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

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

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