Sunday, October 02, 2011

Thinking about development in Haiti

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There is a fun talk by Paul Farmer on the tragic situation in Haiti on CSPAN's Book TV. The talk was occasioned by Farmer's new book, Haiti After the EarthquakeI recommend that you watch the discussion of the situation in Haiti after the earthquake and cholera epidemic. I want to think about a couple of points he made.

There are lots of explanations of the poverty in Haiti. Mine is historical. The slaves who gained independence from France at the end of the 18th century were ill prepared to build and run a nation. The French imposed ruinous reparations on the fragile Haitian nation in the 19th century. The United States, while many of its states were dependent on slavery, isolated Haiti and contributed to its poverty. United States troops occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, during which time the United States made deep cuts in the Haitian economy in order to repay Haitian international debts. Leaving Haiti in the depression, the United States had not built neither democratic nor bureaucratic governmental institutions in Haiti, leaving the country in the hands of rapacious dictators. Lacking adequate public health institutions, Haiti has been literally plagued by infectious diseases. (I recall that when an effective campaign in the 1940s wiped out yaws in Haiti, the estimated population increased by one third, as people with disfiguring yaws sores were healed and were able to leave the darkness of their houses.) The class system left the vast majority of Haitians poor and uneducated, and allowed a small, relatively affluent and educated upper class to exploit the rest and export human and financial capital. The result has been decades of misgovernment and convulsive revolutionary expression of popular discontent. Then came the earthquake, that destroyed almost all the government buildings and left the most developed parts of the country in ruins.

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Farmer makes the point that the non-governmental organization raise their funds from contributions of well meaning people. He reports that an amazing 50 percent of American households donated to Haitian earthquake relief. The NGOs carry out programs for which they are funded, which are basically short term relief, leaving many areas of long term development unfunded and unsupported. Governments, which pledged large amounts of funding to rebuild Haiti, have actually provided relatively little of that funding. The result is that not nearly enough has been done to build the Haitian infrastructure, much less to build the human and institutional capital needed to continue development. This situation points to a very important problem. Foreign aid generally is not well allocated to promote sustainable development. That problem can be ameliorated by effective government, but the poorest nations are generally the nations most lacking in effective government. Donor coordination committees, which exist for many poor countries, can help to better allocate and coordinate aid, but governments and NGOs are reluctant to give up autonomy and coordination committees are poorly equipped to really coordinate donor efforts.

Are "dependency" and "sovereignty" conflicting concepts? Farmer mentions that Haitians have "an allergy" to any hint of intrusion on Haitian sovereignty. (He is a physician, and uses the metaphor of the body's reaction to an allergen which is an overprotective effort by the immune system.) The word "sovereignty" is obviously related to the word "sovereign", and the Haitian "sovereigns" have obviously been people that you would not want to entrust with your donations. On the other hand, entrusting Haitian sustainable development to the charity of others is clearly a bad idea. I think we need a better concept than "sovereignty" to capture the intent of letting a people and individual people make decisions on their own futures.

How do we bridge the gap between good intentions and lack of institutional capacity? How do we bridge the gaps between the willingness of people of good will to support development, their lack of understanding of how best to do so, and their lack of ability to provide oversight to assure that their contributions are put to best use. Surely, the solution is not to dry up aid and allow people in desperation to try to deal with their problems without aid -- they will die unnecessarily, their children will live with lifetime disabilities. I don't have the answer, but a first step is to continue to ask the question.

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