On 9 September, 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 spreadsheet. Opening my laptop in his dining room made me feel nervous, afraid he would dismiss our table as mere guesswork.
To our relief, he approved it enthusiastically.
I spent the next few weeks sharing my screen in online meetings with scientists studying Haiti’s debt. I showed them the spreadsheet and carefully detailed it, cell by cell, my sources, and I listened to them put our numbers into historical perspective. A total of six academics, including Haitian scholars Gusti-Klara Gaillard and Guy Pierre, vetted our table.
However, the work was far from over. The challenge then became understanding how the 112 million franc disbursement over decades had affected Haiti, and what kind of loss to its economic development that disbursement represented over time. One way to do this was to determine how much this money would be worth today if it had stayed in Haiti.
Some economists had attempted to do that in a research paper published in August that broadly estimates Haiti’s debt, so I drew on their methodology. I assumed that if that money had stayed in the Haitian economy, it would have grown minimally at a rate of return equal to Haiti’s real growth in gross domestic product between 1825 and today.
Using estimates of Haiti’s GDP in the 19th century 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, calculated 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 video calling and exchanging lengthy emails with economists like Ugo Panizza and Rui Esteves of the Geneva Graduate Institute to test the methodology — and be gently corrected for several formula errors. Matt and I also went on to present our findings to the Paris School of Economics, where researchers put us to the test.
We shared our analysis with 15 leading economists and financial historians. All but one agreed with our $21 billion estimate. Some said it was within an acceptable range; others considered it conservative and said long-term losses to Haiti could be higher in reality.