Many Different Thoughts About Haiti, Unrelated To The Tragedy

Tyler Cowen:

I’m not interested in talking about Greg Clark or making comparisons to the West; if need be compare it to other black Caribbean nations, such as Jamaica or Barbados.  It’s much worse and in terms of social indicators it is also worse than many places in Africa.  Why?  Here a few hypotheses (NB: I don’t endorse all of them):

1. Haiti cut its colonial ties too early, rebelling against the French in the early 19th century and achieving complete independence.  Guadaloupe and Martinique are still riding the gravy train and French aid is a huge chunk of their gdps.

2. Haiti was a French colony in the first place and French colonies do less well.

3. Sugar cane gave Haiti some early characteristics of “the resource curse,” dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

4. Haiti was doing OK until the Duvaliers destroyed civil society, thus putting the country on a path toward destruction.  It is a more or less random one-time event which wrecked the place.

5. Hegel was correct that the “voodoo religion,” with its intransitive power relations among the gods, was prone to producing political intransitivity as well.  (Isn’t that a startling insight for a guy who didn’t travel the broader world much?)

6. For reasons peculiar to the history of the slave trade, Haitian slaves came from many different parts of Africa and thus Haitian internal culture has long had lower levels of cohesion and cooperation.  (The former point about the mix is true, but the cultural point is speculation.)

7. Haiti has higher than average levels of polygamy (but is this cause or effect?)

8. In the early to mid twentieth century, Haiti was poorly situated to attract Chinese and other immigrants, unlike say Jamaica or Trinidad.  It is interesting that many of the wealthiest families in Haiti are Lebanese, such as the Naders.

Overall I don’t find this set of possible factors very satisfactory.  Is it asking too much to wish for an economics profession that is obsessed with such a question?


Ken Silverstein at Harper’s:

It’s pretty stunning that this almost entirely ignores the role of outside powers. Is Haiti poor simply because foreigners exploited it? Of course not, but one can’t understand why the country is in such terrible shape if you ignore the French and American roles in beggaring the country.

So here are a couple of suggested reading items: First, this post by Barbara Miller, a specialist in the anthropology of international development, who asks the exact same question posed by Marginal Revolution, and comes up with quite a different set of answers:

Colonial plantation owners grew fabulously rich from this island. It produced more wealth for France than all of France’s other colonies combined and more than the 13 colonies in North America produced for Britain. Why is Haiti so poor now?

Colonialism launched environmental degradation by clearing forests. After the revolution, the new citizens carried with them the traumatic history of slavery. Now, neocolonialism and globalization are leaving new scars. For decades, the United States has played, and still plays, a powerful role in supporting conservative political regimes.

Gee, I wonder if those small matters had anything to do with Haiti’s poverty?

E.D. Kain:

Nobody, it seems, really understands why Haiti is so much poorer than so many of its neighbors.

After all, US debt policy is not unique to Haiti, nor is the push for free trade in this hemisphere isolated to any particular country.  It is possible, though, that the way in which countries adopt free trade can have a serious impact on the effectiveness of those policies.  Much has been made of the push to “spread democracy” in recent years.  Compelling arguments have been made that countries without the civic and social institutions necessary to provide the proper soil for democracy to grow are not good candidates for forced democratization.  Countries with unstable governments, and with histories bereft of any type of democratic rule are not good contenders for smooth transitions to functioning democratic states.

The same might be said for free trade policies.  Countries without stable institutions that are rife with corruption are not as likely to benefit as quickly from free trade policies as those with at least some history of stable government.  A country like China has adopted free trade policies more capably than a country like Haiti because they have a strong central government which is able to help set the pace of their economic liberalization.  Other island nations in the Caribbean have been able to erect tourism industries because their governments have been more historically stable than Haiti’s.

I am an advocate for free markets.  I think prosperity and trade are the surest ways to bring peace to the world, end hunger and disease, and curtail booming population growth in the third world.  However, I wonder if free market proponents shouldn’t take a lesson from the failures of nation building.

Irrational exuberance can blind us all too easily.  Regime change and democracy promotion was hailed as an idea that would bring about global peace.  The advocates of these ideas didn’t understand that democracy needs the proper cultural and institutional soil to grow, nor did they realize that trade not democracy was the real key to international peace.

David Brooks at NYT:

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.

Rod Dreher:

I wonder, then, if religion, as practiced by my black neighbors growing up, was mostly a matter of emotional consolation amid the very real suffering and travails in their lives, as distinct from providing a firm and authoritative moral code to help them order their lives? I don’t know enough to say, but the question is a good one. On the contrary, we can think of examples of religion that is little more than moral codes, and downplays the emotional pain and confusion ordinary people live with. Still, people like the Haitians live with a lot of disorder, which causes them untold suffering, and which could to some extent be overcome by a change of mentality, including religious orientation. Again and again we’ve heard testimonials by Latin Americans who have converted to Evangelical Protestantism, who emphasize the positive change Evangelical Christianity has brought to their lives. For whatever reason, they report it has delivered them from a sense of fatalism, and made them feel empowered to change their lives for the better by changing their behavior. It is not clear to me why this is, and why they couldn’t have gotten this from Roman Catholicism. But there are lots of testimonials to this point; I’ve read them, and I heard it from a Mexican immigrant housekeeper we once had.

I’d be interested to hear from readers, of whatever cultural background, talking about what you’ve observed in your own communities about religion and behavior, both good and bad. At least among us believers, we have a tendency to think of religion as being a force for good in a person’s and a community’s life. But that’s hard to justify once you start going below the surface. The kind of religion one practices makes a huge difference in how the community lives — for better or for worse. I suppose it’s at least arguable that the Haitians would be better off at the Church of Christopher Hitchens rather than as followers of voodoo. The bad side of traditional religion, and its cultural harm, is something I’ve yet to see dealt with in Wade Davis’s work.

Daniel Larison:

David Brooks is right that culture and habits matter, but this one line rang false:

There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile.

Of course, it seems odd to count the first part of this statement against practitioners of voodoo at the present time, since a natural disaster is one of the most obvious ways in which we see the capriciousness of life on display, but more important it seems to me that Brooks’ description simply gets voodoo wrong. He is describing these beliefs as if they were fatalistic, when practitioners of voodoo believe that they can use their rites to influence things and be empowered.

There is also something about this remark that reminds me of old, fairly absurd stereotypes of Catholic societies as stagnant and uncreative. Haitians are also overwhelmingly Catholic, and many of them practice voodoo as well, but why should we assume that their religious practices are the destructive influences in their society? Isn’t it just as plausible that the social function of voodoo is attempt to reclaim some power over circumstances amid misfortunes and adversity? Viewed in that way, it could be seen at the very least as a socially stabilizing mechanism for coping with life’s burdens. The line rang false all the more because it was followed by the far more significant observation that “[t]here are high levels of social mistrust.” When trying to discern reasons for social dysfunction and weak institutions, social mistrust would seem to be the overwhelmingly more relevant factor. Further, it is probably the case that shared religious beliefs are a source of social solidarity and cohesion, and so would potentially be a means of building social trust, which would make such beliefs part of any larger solution.

UPDATE: Matt Taibbi at Brooks

UPDATE #2: Matthew Lee and Jacqueline Shire at Bloggingheads on Brooks

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Filed under Foreign Affairs, Global Hot Spots

2 responses to “Many Different Thoughts About Haiti, Unrelated To The Tragedy

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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