Friday, January 15, 2010

The Underlying Tragedy

January 15, 2010

Op-Ed Columnist (New York Times)

The Underlying Tragedy

On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died.

This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services. On Thursday, President Obama told the people of Haiti: “You will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten.” If he is going to remain faithful to that vow then he is going to have to use this tragedy as an occasion to rethink our approach to global poverty. He’s going to have to acknowledge a few difficult truths.

The first of those truths is that we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty. Over the past few decades, the world has spent trillions of dollars to generate growth in the developing world. The countries that have not received much aid, like China, have seen tremendous growth and tremendous poverty reductions. The countries that have received aid, like Haiti, have not.

In the recent anthology “What Works in Development?,” a group of economists try to sort out what we’ve learned. The picture is grim. There are no policy levers that consistently correlate to increased growth. There is nearly zero correlation between how a developing economy does one decade and how it does the next. There is no consistently proven way to reduce corruption. Even improving governing institutions doesn’t seem to produce the expected results.

The chastened tone of these essays is captured by the economist Abhijit Banerjee: “It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control.”

The second hard truth is that micro-aid is vital but insufficient. Given the failures of macrodevelopment, aid organizations often focus on microprojects. More than 10,000 organizations perform missions of this sort in Haiti. By some estimates, Haiti has more nongovernmental organizations per capita than any other place on earth. They are doing the Lord’s work, especially these days, but even a blizzard of these efforts does not seem to add up to comprehensive change.

Third, it is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty. Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

Fourth, it’s time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.

It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

The late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington used to acknowledge that cultural change is hard, but cultures do change after major traumas. This earthquake is certainly a trauma. The only question is whether the outside world continues with the same old, same old.


Now, please read this:

From: Greg Chamberlain

(The Nation, Jan 2010)

The Haiti Haters

By Amy Wilentz

The Haitian tragedy has opened up a whole new industry for what I call
the genteel racist point of view. A week into the crisis I heard an
otherwise intelligent report on NPR in which the correspondent opened
her piece from Port-au-Prince by declaring that it "is not falling into
a...pit of violence," thereby giving us an idea of what she had been
anticipating, almost breathlessly. We heard this kind of thing
frequently in the days after the earthquake, with scores of fresh
reporters receiving their Haitian baptism amid the rubble. There are
many problems in Haiti, but most of the negative pronouncements that
have been circulating do not touch on them. The commentary has been
psychopolitical rather than analytical.

At least reporters, while their views may be wrongheaded, are giving us
new information from the ground. Far more insidious are the armchair
commentators who know nothing about Haiti--many never having set toe
there--but enjoy rebuking suffering Haitians from the comfort of their
white bastions in the United States and Europe. I've never seen victims
so roundly blamed for their fate. David Brooks's recent column in the
New York Times--one of the paper's most e-mailed articles the
week it was published--blamed Haiti's culture for the quake's violence.

"It is time," Brooks writes sententiously, "to put the thorny issue of
culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty. Why is Haiti
so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism.
But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well."

By all means, let's turn to actual history, which Brooks has mangled. As
has been mentioned repeatedly, the Haitian slaves rose up in 1791 and
began what was to become the only successful slave revolution in modern
history. That war ended, after much loss of life on both sides, with the
establishment of the world's first black republic, in 1804--just
twenty-eight years after the American Declaration of Independence. The
Haitians' models were the American and French revolutions, and they
based their ideas on the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But their
revolution seems to have been a little premature for the tastes of the
world in which they had to operate. Haiti was almost immediately saddled
with a gargantuan and punitive reparations payment to France in exchange
for recognition and the ability to engage in unhampered international
trade. The wealthy, slaveholding United States did not recognize Haiti
until 1862, after the Southern states seceded. Haiti has been a pariah
nation for its entire history.

Barbados, on the other hand: the Barbadians made their bold stand for
independence from Britain in... 1966. The British had already given up
slavery more than a century earlier. It was an unbloody, negotiated
independence, and Barbados is still a part of the British Commonwealth.
In fact, its membership began on the date of independence, as did
Jamaica's, in 1962, when it shrugged off the very loose shackles of the
remnant of British colonialism. The British were less brutal masters
than the French, and in the eighteenth century it was probably wiser to
remain a colony under them than, as the Haitians did, gain your freedom
at the expense of your economic welfare.

Brooks goes on to discuss the Haitian family, seemingly basing his
argument on a book by Lawrence Harrison, a conservative cultural critic
who also knows nothing about Haiti. "Child-rearing practices" in Haiti,
Brooks writes, "often involve neglect in the early years and harsh
retribution when kids hit 9 or 10." I don't know where this assertion
comes from, but it reminds me of nothing so much as Daniel Patrick
Moynihan's controversial and misguided report on the black family in the
1960s. I've never seen either of these child-rearing practices in my two
decades of living in and covering Haiti. In fact, I see more parents
carrying small children around in Haiti's markets than I do at the
farmers' markets in Los Angeles. You can't write these kinds of things
about people whose culture and nation you respect. Nor would an editor
permit you to say such things blithely about people who are considered
our equals or are able to respond in equally august publications. Right
now, the Haitians cannot--they're too busy getting water for their
neglected children.

Let's move briefly to Anne Applebaum's similar column, which appeared in
the Washington Post. Anne's a little depressed. She opens her
piece (as she so often does) by telling us about herself; her reactions
are important to her: "For the past several days, I have found myself
unable to look at the photographs from Haiti. I have also found that
when I start an article datelined Port-au-Prince, I have to force myself
to read to the end." Although she doesn't like to read about it, she
knows what's at the heart of her reluctance: "I have no illusions about
anyone's ability to help, for a man-made disaster first and
foremost, and so it will remain." She goes on to fault the weakness of
Haiti's public institutions for the physical collapse of buildings,
including the Presidential Palace (constructed by the Marines during the
1915-34 US occupation of Haiti) and many other public edifices built by
perfectly well-educated architects using the best practices of their
day. It's a stunningly heartless argument.

Applebaum tells us that she was not this hopeless after the Indian Ocean
tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, and that it was easy to coordinate basic
assistance in those cases. Of course, this is patently not true, as
anyone who has read about or experienced those situations knows.
Applebaum goes on to say that there were no scenes in Aceh, Indonesia,
of "what everyone always calls 'biblical' tragedy." The reason some
people call the Haitian quake biblical is that they believe, whether
consciously or not, that it is a sort of divine retribution for the
temerity of the Haitian Revolution, and for the idea that black people
could take charge of their own lives. As Pat Robertson put it, the
Haitians made a deal with the Devil to throw off French rule. That's how
he sees it, and by extension, though in much more genteel terms, that's
how many other commentators see it. One cannot help but wonder, then,
what the Lord was avenging when he brought down an earthquake on San
Francisco in 1989, or on Los Angeles in 1994. Gay rights? Bad movies?

But let's look at things clearly, without prejudice. Haiti was in bad
shape before the earthquake. Though outside forces like debt, economic
sanctions, US interference and a big but diffuse and uncoordinated
development community have grievously harmed the country, Haitians too
are responsible for their problems. The government is weak and--although
much improved in recent years--still corrupt here and there, and still
plagued by internecine fighting over the tiny bits of funding that are
available in a country with microscopic national coffers. Taxes are not
properly collected, and well-connected families and officials fight to
the death over things like where emergency response teams or bridges
should be located (my province or yours?). Appropriations battles are
even harder fought in the Haitian legislature than in the US Congress,
and over much smaller streams of money. And powerful drug traffickers
have taken refuge in this governmentally lax situation, as they have in
Mexico and Colombia.

The country is also too centralized. Everything depends on the
government in Port-au-Prince. All the money flows out of that great city
to the provinces, when it flows at all. But with people fleeing the
destroyed capital, now's a good time to consider federalizing Haiti. The
countryside needs funding sources other than the usually paralyzed
national legislature. Strong and honest provincial councils that can
levy taxes and craft local solutions to local problems would vastly
improve the quality of life, and fewer Haitians would feel compelled to
move to Port-au-Prince to seek their fortune--and build slums that
pancake in earthquakes.

We need constructive answers to these big questions now. Good ideas are
coming in from people like Paul Farmer, who's run Haiti's Partners in
Health for years and who is now Bill Clinton's deputy at the United
Nations. They're coming in from Haitian survivors in all rubble-strewn
walks of life. New paradigms are also being offered by hardheaded
analysts like Jocelyn McCalla, a Haitian who consults on government,
immigration and business affairs, and from economists who have turned
their view toward global poverty eradication. Not all their ideas are
useful or plausible, and everything will be difficult to implement in
the months immediately following such a catastrophe. But people like
this are trying to find a way toward rebuilding Haiti, and building it

You have a choice in a situation like the one we're confronting. You can
sit back in your chair and fondle your nihilism, or you can try to be
original and work toward something creative. People like Brooks,
Applebaum and Robertson are tapping into something very dark and
atavistic indeed. Those who read them or hear them are bound to ask
themselves, "What is it about Haiti?" Some will shrug and, like
Applebaum, turn away. In a moment of such death and destruction, that's
not the reaction one should hope to elicit.

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