The popular image of Haiti can be summed up pretty succinctly: impoverished, unstable, dangerous. Against that familiar backdrop, Tuesday’s devastating earthquake is just another in a litany of tragedies. That is exactly the line The New York Times took in the conclusion to its main story Wednesday on the quake’s impact:

Haiti’s many man-made woes—its dire poverty, political infighting and history of insurrection—have been worsened repeatedly by natural disasters. At the end of 2008, four hurricanes flooded whole towns, knocked out bridges and left a destitute population in even more desperate conditions.

So it may come as a surprise that, at least in the eyes of some observers, there have recently been real reasons for hope in Haiti. Last January, the economist Paul Collier prepared a report for the United Nations in which he argued that “Haiti has far more favourable fundamentals than the ‘fragile states’ with which it is conventionally grouped.” In September, the Center for American Progress released a report, titled “Haiti’s Changing Tide,” that declared that the country was “currently experiencing one of the best combinations of open political space and physical security” in decades.

In November, an article in the Miami Herald reported that Haiti’s economy was expected to expand 2.4 percent in 2009, and it was one of only two Caribbean nations expected to post growth for the year. The economist Tyler Cowen, noting the export-led growth and the planned return of chain hotels, even wrote a blog post Tuesday afternoon—literally hours before the quake hit—titled “The Haitian Renaissance of 2010.”

Was this hopefulness well-founded? Yes, says Robert Perito, who directs the Haiti Working Group at the United States Institute of Peace—as long as you keep in mind that the standard for good news in Haiti is quite a bit lower than in other places. “The country was on the upswing, and there was a kind of growing sense of optimism,” he said. (See USIP’s recent publications on Haiti’s political and economic development.)

Perito traced the gains to the response to the last natural disaster to hit Haiti—those four tropical storms in September 2008, which killed hundreds, caused over $1 billion in damage, and devastated Gonaives, one of Haiti’s most important cities. After an initial emergency appeal generated a lackluster response, the United Nations initiated a special effort to “fix Haiti once and for all, and put the country on the road to sustainable economic growth,” he said. International donors made a major commitment in April 2009, and Bill Clinton, serving as a special envoy, helped attract some foreign investment. In addition, the political system was, for once, operating fairly smoothly, with further reforms on the agenda. And, thanks in large part to the presence of a UN peacekeeping mission, it was possible to walk around Port-au-Prince safely.

The recent presence of these positive indicators means that beyond being a catastrophe, the quake presents a “psychological shock” for Haitians, Perito said. “Just when we thought things were going well and we’d turned the corner and everything looked good, this comes out of nowhere.”

Some observers, though, were more skeptical. Henry Carey, associate professor of political science at Georgia State University, agreed that “the general trajectory [was] positive”—in large part thanks to the peacekeeping mission, which has been in place since 2004 and enjoyed some “remarkable successes” in demobilizing gangs and suppressing political violence. But the political culture, while smoother, has still been plagued by electoral irregularities and the targeting of some factions. And macroeconomic data “don’t tell a whole lot about the country,” as 90 percent of the economy is informal, he said. “General deprivation is still pretty bad.”

Robert Fatton Jr., a native of Port-au-Prince who now teaches in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, offered a similar analysis. The tenuous political stability in place, based on shifting alliances, “was very precarious and very fragile” even before the quake, he said. The new economic efforts continued the “complete neglect” of rural areas. And, like Carey, he expressed concern about how the reliance on aid has affected the Haitian government. “The state has been completely emasculated,” Fatton said. “If you look at what happened with the earthquake, there’s nothing—there’s no state.”

After the first wave of reporting, Fatton said, when attention will be on efforts to save lives and how the relief program meets its enormous logistical challenges, this is a story journalists should focus on. “You need to go beyond the tragic, emotional situation,” he said, to explore why the Haitian government was “utterly” unprepared to respond. (On this last point, there’s little dispute—an indicator, perhaps, that the different analyses are a matter of perspective. “It seems that the earthquake kind of decapitated the place,” said Perito. “It’s a place with no redundancy and very little capacity.”)

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.