Why are the roads so bad in Pétionville?

In the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, the rich people live up on the hill of Pétionville, named after the early independence president Alexander Pétion. Up on the hill it is cooler, and there are fewer mosquitos. You’ll find such an arrangement in many tropical capitals, for example in Freetown in Sierra Leone where Hill Station is the most desirable location for a residence. With wealth you’d expect lots of good things to follow, nice restaurants, functioning hospitals and schools, good roads and infrastructure.

But things are a little different in Haiti. Check out this road in Pétionville.

As with most roads in this fancy part of town, it is in shocking condition.

So how come the roads are so bad in the richest part of the country? Can’t even the rich people get the government to do things for them in Haiti?

Actually they can and do, that’s not the problem here.

Here is a hypothesis that was independently proposed by three different people last summer to Jim when he was in Port-au-Prince: rich people like having roads so terrible outside their houses that you need a four wheel drive to drive on them. This has a number of advantages. First, it makes it less obvious that rich people are living there to potential criminals. Second and more important, it makes it difficult to make a get away after a robbery unless you yourself have a four wheel drive!

So the problem is not that the rich Haitians of Pétionville cannot get the government to build roads in their neighborhood (or for that matter, build them themselves if they wished). The problem, consistent with the lack of political centralization and even the most basic form of law and order in Haiti as we emphasized in our last blog post, is that it’s much harder — and more expensive —for them to ensure that the government would actually protect their property.

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