Politics & Policy

Haiti’s Tourniquet Isn’t Healing the Wound

It’s time to rethink the international-aid industry.

Ninety-five percent of the debris from the Haitian earthquake of one year ago hasn’t been moved.

In other words, billions of dollars later, with none other than Bill Clinton serving as the foreman for a massive international cleanup and reconstruction effort, most of the country pretty much looks exactly the way it did when dust and screams still filled the air.

Except, of course, for all of the tent cities. 

More than a million people remain homeless. The good news? The Red Cross is building 300 semi-permanent wood homes. That would be sufficient if they could each serve a family of 3,300 people, semi-permanently.

To get a sense of Haiti’s dysfunction, Fox News’s Steve Harrigan reports that some 64 brand-new trucks donated after the earthquake by the United States to be used by aid organizations remain parked at the airport. Apparently nobody will pay the steep import tax on the vehicles, so they sit idle, overgrown with weeds.

Even before the earthquake, Haiti was not only the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, it was one of the few nations in the world to get poorer over the last 50 years. And this is despite the fact it has had some 10,000 international-aid organizations working there for decades.

As I’ve written before, one of Haiti’s biggest problems is that it has a culture of poverty. Some cultures add value, some don’t. For instance, a low-skilled Mexican worker becomes 10 to 20 times more productive simply by crossing the border into the United States. It’s not that there aren’t entrepreneurs or hard workers in Haiti, but the system holds them down rather than unleashing them.

Most of the wealth of any society resides in what economists call “intangible capital” — not the stuff of gold mines and factories, but the laws, knowledge, and customs that define a given society. Social planners love to invoke the Marshall Plan, whereby America helped rebuild Western Europe after World War II, as proof that foreign aid can create prosperity almost overnight. What is left out of the discussion is that while Europe’s roads and bridges may have been smashed, its intangible capital remained relatively intact.

You can hardly say the same thing about Haiti, which has seen its storehouse of intangible capital devalued for generations. Many ambitious Haitians of means leave the country. Worse, those who stay home are thwarted when they try to break through the cycle of dependency created by indisputably well-meaning aid agencies.

In a reported essay for Slate, Maura R. O’Connor asks, “Does International Aid Keep Haiti Poor?” That’s a tougher question than it sounds, but it’s sure as hell clear that international aid has done nothing to make Haiti rich. 

Aid seems to be a tourniquet on a mortal wound. Take the tourniquet off and the bleeding will get dangerously worse. Leave it on and the wound can never be treated. 

O’Connor writes that Haitians increasingly see the foreign-aid industry as exactly that, an industry. “There is a vicious paradigm to it: If everything is OK, the NGO has no mission. Maybe that begs some questions,” Georges Sassine, a businessman and president of the Haitian Association of Industrialists, told Slate.

For instance, American agricultural aid keeps millions of Haitians from starvation or malnourishment. But thanks to the “Bumpers Amendment” — named for former Arkansas Democratic Senator Dale Bumpers — we forbid any agricultural aid for crops that would compete with those of our own farmers. So Haiti, which could grow rice or sugar quite easily, grows mangoes and lettuce. Never mind that sugar subsidies in the U.S. are an economic, environmental, and political scandal in their own right.

O’Connor writes that the overwhelming desire of Haitians themselves, according to surveys, is for the country to break free of the international-aid community’s embrace. They still want help, but they’re sick of having the aid “process” that is run out of New York treat Haitians like minor variables in a spreadsheet. 

It is tempting to argue that benign neglect alone is the answer. But benign neglect amidst such chaos, including a cholera epidemic, probably wouldn’t be all that benign.

Still, you have to ask: How many more decades of “help” making things worse do we need before it’s time to take off the tourniquet?

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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