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Jean Palème Mathurin has the stocky, muscular build of a farmer, but he’s not one anymore. He is one of the leading economic voices in Haiti. He’s also something of a miracle. He was born into a family of peyizan (Creole for “peasants”) in a small village several...

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Jean Palème Mathurin has the stocky, muscular build of a farmer, but he’s not one anymore. He is one of the leading economic voices in Haiti. He’s also something of a miracle. He was born into a family of peyizan (Creole for “peasants”) in a small village several hours southwest of Port-au-Prince. A group of Baptist missionaries started …Peyizan, even brilliant ones, don’t go to college, they don’t get Ph.Ds., and they don’t become powerful advisers. They remain peyizan. Mathurin has devoted his life to understanding why that is. Why, in poor and corrupt nations, does merit mean so little, and how does a tiny and often mediocre élite maintain its wealth?

At Paris-Sud, Mathurin built an economic model of Haiti and other similarly weak states. A few years ago, he explained it to me, as we walked through a tent city in front of the Prime Minister’s office, on a mountain overlooking the capital. Mathurin said that, in nations with some degree of broadly shared prosperity, one can think of the economy as standing on top of several supports. The base is provided by a government that uses its power to create clear and fair rules for economic activity. This means that industries will be regulated fairly, courts will rule impartially, and, perhaps most important, power will be transferred democratically and peacefully.