The 2010 earthquake in Haiti has exposed the extreme vulnerability of a society where the state and the economy simultaneously fail to deliver. The Dominican Republic has witnessed several phases of rapid economic growth since the 1870s and, from the 1970s onwards, a sustained process of political emancipation. Douglas North, John Wallis and Barry Weingast have developed a conceptual framework to explain different long-term performance characteristics of societies, which we apply to the case of Hispaniola. We argue that it captures the internal logic of the political economy of both societies but fails to account for the effect of different foreign relations. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.