On my blog, a woman named Mona pointed to Haitian corruption and declared: “I won’t send money because I know what will happen to it.” Another reader attributed Haiti’s poverty to “the low I.Q. of the 9 million people there,” and added: “It is all very sad and cannot be fixed.”
“Giving money to Haiti and other third-world countries is like throwing money in the toilet,” another commenter said. A fourth asserted: “Haiti is a money pit. Dumping billions of dollars into it has proven futile. … America is deeply in debt, and we can’t afford it.”
Not everyone is so frank, but the subtext of much of the discussion of Haiti is despair about both Haiti and foreign aid. Pat Robertson, the religious broadcaster, went furthest by suggesting that Haiti’s earthquake flowed from a pact with the devil more than two centuries ago. While it’s not for a journalist to nitpick a minister’s theological credentials, that implication of belated seismic revenge on Haitian children seems defamatory of God.
Americans have also responded with a huge outpouring of assistance, including more than $22 million raised by the Red Cross from text messages alone. But for those with doubts, let’s have a frank discussion of Haiti’s problems:
Why is Haiti so poor? Is it because Haitians are dimwitted or incapable of getting their act together?
Haiti isn’t impoverished because the devil got his due; it’s impoverished partly because of debts due. France imposed a huge debt that strangled Haiti. And when foreigners weren’t looting Haiti, its own rulers were.
The greatest predation was the deforestation of Haiti, so that only 2 percent of the country is forested today. Some trees have been — and continue to be — cut by local peasants, but many were destroyed either by foreigners or to pay off debts to foreigners. Last year, I drove across the island of Hispaniola, and it was surreal: You traverse what in places is a Haitian moonscape until you reach the border with the Dominican Republic — and jungle.
Without trees, Haiti lost its topsoil through erosion, crippling agriculture.
To visit Haiti is to know that its problem isn’t its people. They are its treasure — smart, industrious and hospitable — and Haitians tend to be successful in the United States (and everywhere but in Haiti).
Can our billions in aid to Haitians accomplish anything? After all, a Wall Street Journal column argues, “To help Haiti, end foreign aid.”
First, don’t exaggerate how much we give or they get.
Haiti ranks 42nd among poor countries in worldwide aid received per person ($103 in 2008, more than one-quarter of which comes from the United States). David Roodman of the Center for Global Development calculates that in 2008, official American aid to Haiti amounted to 92 cents per American.
The United States gives more to Haiti than any other country. But it ranks 11th in per capita giving. Canadians give five times as much per person as we do.
As for whether aid promotes economic growth, that’s a bitter and unresolved argument. But even the leading critics of aid — William Easterly, a New York University economist, and Dambisa Moyo, a banker turned author — believe in assisting Haiti after the earthquake.
“I think we have a moral imperative,” Ms. Moyo told me. “I do believe the international community should act.”
Likewise, Professor Easterly said: “Of course, I am in favor of aid to Haiti earthquake victims!”
So, is Haiti hopeless? Is Bill O’Reilly right? He said: “Once again, we will do more than anyone else on the planet, and one year from today Haiti will be just as bad as it is right now.”
No, he’s not right. And this is the most pernicious myth of all. In fact, Haiti in recent years has been much better managed under President René Préval and has shown signs of being on the mend.
Far more than most other impoverished countries — particularly those in Africa — Haiti could plausibly turn itself around. It has an excellent geographic location, there are no regional wars, and it could boom if it could just export to the American market.
A report for the United Nations by a prominent British economist, Paul Collier, outlined the best strategy for Haiti: building garment factories. That idea (sweatshops!) may sound horrific to Americans. But it’s a strategy that has worked for other countries, such as Bangladesh, and Haitians in the slums would tell you that their most fervent wish is for jobs. A few dozen major shirt factories could be transformational for Haiti.
So in the coming months as we help Haitians rebuild, let’s dispatch not only aid workers, but also business investors. Haiti desperately needs new schools and hospitals, but also new factories.
And let’s challenge the myth that because Haiti has been poor, it always will be. That kind of self-fulfilling fatalism may be the biggest threat of all to Haiti, the real pact with the devil.