How (and why) did we calculate the value of payments from Haiti to France

On September 9, Selam Gebrekidan, one of our colleagues on the project, traveled with me and Matt to south-east London to meet Victor Bulmer-Thomas, a British expert on Caribbean economies, and show him the sheet Calculation. 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.

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 listened to them place our numbers in historical perspective. A total of six academics, including Haitian scholars Gusti-Klara Gaillard and Guy Pierre, checked our tabulation.

The job, however, was far from complete. The challenge then became to understand how the disbursement of 112 million francs over decades had affected Haiti, and what kind of loss for its economic development this disbursement represented over time. One way to do this was to figure out how much that money would be worth today if it had stayed in Haiti.

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

Using estimates of Haiti’s 19th century GDP that were provided by Simon Henochsberg, a French banker who studied Haiti’s Public Debt for her master’s thesisI calculated average annual growth rates, calculated them with Haiti’s annual payment streams, and found that double debt 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 University Institute of Geneva to test the methodology — and be gently corrected on various formula errors. Matt and I also went to present our findings at the Paris School of Economics, where the researchers grilled us.

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 and said the long-term losses for Haiti might actually be higher.

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