The current news is about as bad as it gets, of course. 200,000 are believed dead, the UN mission has collapsed, the government has ceased to function (if it ever really did) and perhaps millions of people are living in the streets without reliable food or water supplies.
Many hospitals and schools have been destroyed and the port and airport are very badly damaged. Haiti’s main prison has also collapsed and the inmates – a tough lot – are running free. There is no viable police force or army.
As myriad experts seek to explain the latest Haitian tragedy the prize for the silliest and sickest comment must go to the American evangelist and erstwhile US presidential candidate, Pat Robertson.
He has claimed Haiti’s founders had sworn a “pact to the devil” in order toliberate themselves from French slave-owners and indirectly attributing the earthquake to a consequent “curse” on the Haitian people. Robertson said something similarly stupid about Hurricane Katrina being God’s punishment for America’s toleration of abortion.
Robertson is a buffoon, but while its origins are natural – the island of Hispaniola nestles between two tectonic plates that are prone to rub against each other – the tragedy that is Haiti today is almost entirely manmade.
To understand that, compare last week’s earthquake with the one in L’Aquila last year. It was of similar magnitude, yet “only” 300 Italians died. In Haiti, some say the 200,000 figure is a conservative estimate and it’s rising as disease takes hold in the shanty towns like Cité Soleil surrounding Port-au-Prince.
That is not divine retribution – but nor is it simple bad luck either, although Haiti has had its fair share of misfortune recently. In 2008, the nation was pummelled by four major hurricanes in a month and 60% of the harvest was wiped out. The countryside, deforested by impoverished islanders who cut down trees for fuel, became a toxic sludge. But what makes the situation so wretched today is that Haiti is poor, very poor. Some say that, at least in part, Haiti is poor because it is Haiti. Voodoo – more correctly vodou – encourages Haitians to believe that life is capricious and planning is futile. Everything is someone else’s fault or nobody’s fault.
History has something to do with it too, and Haiti’s is pretty dreadful. Its chronic impoverishment began at its birth in 1804 when, having overthrown its French rulers in a bloody, 12-year slave revolt, the new-born nation was subjected to crippling blockades and embargoes.
This economic strangulation continued until 1825, when France offered to recognise the Haitian republic if it paid restitution to France for loss of property, including slaves, of 150 million gold francs.
Haiti had little choice: cough up or face reconquest. It did not finish clearing the debts it ran up with the French until 1947.
Still, a nasty colonial history is something Haiti has in common with lots of other Caribbean islands, many of which are thriving.
A Nigerian once said of his country, “no known system of government works in Nigeria.” This is even truer of Haiti. It shares its climate and natural resources with the Dominican Republic but – like East and West Germany and North and South Korea – Haiti’s plight is a vivid illustration of the importance of having a decent government, one that can enforce basic things like building regulations.
And while it’s true that Haiti has been invaded and interfered with by the United States repeatedly through its 200-year history as an independent nation, the Dominican Republic has been similarly cursed and, though hardly rich, it enjoys an annual GDP six or seven times that of Haiti’s.
No wonder then that those who can try to emigrate. According to the World Bank, 82% of Haitians with a college degree have fled. And Haitians who leave tend to thrive, so Haiti’s problems can’t all be cultural.
At times like this you just wish you could evacuate entire spots on the globe but, moved as we are this week, do Europe or America really want to accept millions of Haitian refugees?
Failing that, our instinct, individually and collectively, is to dig deep into our pockets. Few would deny that there is a clear moral imperative for humanitarian and charity-based aid to step in at times like this. Admirably, President Obama and the EU are in the process of cobbling together massive emergency aid packages for Haiti.
Nevertheless, it’s worth reminding ourselves what such aid can and cannot do. It can alleviate the immediate suffering, but it is not very good at reducing poverty which is Haiti’s underlying problem because, by its very nature, it cannot be the platform for long-term sustainable growth.
And whatever its strengths and weaknesses, such charity-based aid is relatively small beer when compared to the sea of money that floods the developing world every year in government-to-government aid or aid from large development institutions such as the World Bank. Countries that receive tonnes of foreign aid – like Haiti and much of Africa – are floundering and don’t exhibit much improvement whereas countries that don’t get much aid – like China – are doing exceptionally well.
Pretending that we can alleviate poverty by throwing money at Third World regimes isn’t going to help anyone.
Over the past 60 years at least $1 trillion of development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Yet real per capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s and more than 50% of Africans – in excess of 350 million people – live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.
DISASTER relief is, of course, something completely different. No one can remain unmoved by the pictures of Port-au-Prince after the earthquake. Everything that can be done should be done: the financial resources necessary are, comparatively speaking, tiny.
But because of the very problems that contributed so much to the disaster in the first place – appalling infrastructure, absent administration – such relief will be difficult to provide efficiently so it reaches the places where it is desperately needed.
The trouble with aid is that constant streams of “free” money are a perfect way to keep inefficient (or simply rotten) governments in power.
As aid flows in, there is nothing more for the government to do: it doesn’t need to raise taxes and, as long as it pays the army, it doesn’t have to take account of its citizens.
All the government really needs to do is to court its foreign donors to stay in power. Instead of reforming, the aid system just encourages governments in poor countries to pick up the phone and ask for yet another capital infusion.
The aid industry doesn’t like to hear it, but the Haitian nightmare is a reminder of the tremendous importance of the rule of law, free markets, an efficient civil service and an independent judiciary. Never take them for granted as you write your cheque this week.