Thursday, January 21, 2010

Some Unhelpful Advice for Haiti

New York Times columnist David Brooks has an uncanny ability for sounding so reasonable in one column and sounding so crazy in the next. Last week, he managed to do both in the same piece.

Brooks began by correctly observing that the devastation from Haiti's earthquake was so great because the country is so poor. Disasters of similar scales in richer countries come with vastly smaller death tolls. However, while growth is the key to mitigating such tragedies, Brooks also (correctly) points out some unfortunate shortcomings in development knowledge:
"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.'"
At this point, however, the wheels come off the bus. He argues that there are some uncomfortable truths that we must acknowledge about Haiti:
" 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."
As I've written before, I'm skeptical of these types of cultural explanations of poverty. While they can be excellent rationalizations of current facts, they seem to have little predictive value. As the previous link highlights, German, Japanese and Korean cultures were all viewed as hostile to capitalism and progress... that is, until each of these countries rapidly developed, at which point their cultures were viewed as promoting hard work and innovation.

Further, while Brooks highlights the aspects of Voodoo culture that stifle economic progress, he neglects to mention that certain aspects of Christianity (at least on paper) similarly discourage investment and growth. Many Americans believe in the Rapture. They believe that at any moment, they will be brought up to Heaven to observe the Tribulation and Apocalypse on Earth. Seems like that sort of mindset might impede a small business owner deciding on whether or not to expand. And yet, America is the richest country in the world.

Worse still, is Brooks' suggestion for changing the undesirable aspects of Haitian culture:
"'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."
I'm not really sure what this even means. There are many complex reasons for Haiti's poverty, but I'm not sure how creating the international development version of "Kitchen Nightmares" is going to solve it. Unlike with the Harlem Children's Zone, we don't have the authority to install "no-nonsense" leaders in another country. And when we've tried it, it hasn't worked out so well.

In the short-run, Haiti will need a lot of humanitarian relief to recover from this disaster, something even aid skeptics agree on. The long-run question of how to help Haiti (and other poor countries) develop is a more complicated one and we don't have a complete answer. I don't think, however, that naive appeals to "no excuses" paternalism is going to help.

(for a vastly snarkier critique of Brook's argument, read this piece)

No comments: