Why Haiti is Doomed

I’ve been waiting for this story ever since the earthquake.  It turns out the rich folks up on the hill are pretty much OK, and they are being protected from looters as always by the police who have been invisible to date down among the poor.  Haiti is a society operating under rules called amoral familialism, so defined in the little classic Ed Banfield wrote when he spent a summer visiting his wife’s ancestral village in Italy and asked himself (thinking back to his community development work in the US in the thirties), “why are these people so poor?!”.  It is the moral system typical of communities that established their habits and norms under cruel foreign oppression, the French and later the US in Haiti, the French and Spaniards in southern Italy, and are sufficiently isolated from workable, healthy, just societies that the pessimism, selfishness, greed, and fear  they depend on can’t be diluted or adapted.  It is the philosophy of Sonny Corleone, pithily summarized as “…they’re [enlistees in WW II] chumps because they risk their lives for strangers!” But the wall around the Italians in America was punctured in a generation as they learned English, went to public school and CCNY, and read newspapers; the wall around Haiti is an ocean they can’t afford boats to cross and an armed frontier with a (much less vicious and less desperate) police state where they speak a different language.

It is not possible to write a check to “Haiti”, nor to “the poor in Haiti”.  It is possible to implant dozens and even hundreds of community projects for health care, education, rebuilding homes, and the like, and to operate them up to the point that they seriously threaten the people who vacation in Gstaad and St. Tropez.  But any important assistance to Haiti will be met at the airport by the people living up on the hill, who will take it in the name of something that looks enough like a ‘government of the Haitians’ to satisfy foreign donors, and use it to pay the cops outside that genteel market, and to restore the only society they know, which is a society in which they loot a large population of desperate, uneducated, citizens to prop up whatever big man gets to be in charge for the next cycle of misery and theft.  Interesting about the proprietor of the lottery; is there a better way to separate the poor from any little money they may accumulate without having to provide anything in return?

In Naples, the Camorra decides when and if the garbage will be picked up, and who gets a building permit, and what piece of farmland or shoreline gets trashed. Government development programs “respect local needs” and are picked clean before brick is laid on brick.  In the southern Philippines, your local mafiosi have a comfortable arrangement with a distant national government and deliver the votes needed to be left to loot (until they are stupid enough to massacre a convoy of reporters and troublemakers). In the Nigerian delta, someone with connections picks up the oil royalties and leaves just enough to pay thugs to keep the locals quiet in their hovels, looking at the pipeline (and occasionally punching a hole in it in desperation). In Haiti, the same.  I don’t know anywhere in the world where a society like this has climbed out of ignorance, poverty, and violence: culture matters.  The culture of clawing your way out of misery on the backs of your neighbors, if you can get your hands on an AK47 and rent yourself out to someone on that hill, is all the culture there is down in the slums, and the culture of wealth taken from despised wretches, and enjoyed over nice wine with a pleasant view of the harbor, in a house that has some rebar in its masonry,  is very important to the folks who pay the cops. [UPDATE 19/I/10: more discussion of this in two later posts from Andy and me].

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

14 thoughts on “Why Haiti is Doomed”

  1. "The culture of clawing your way out of misery on the backs of your neighbors" — sounds like good old conservative American values to me. I don't deny that Haitians are going through suffering that far exceeds anything America has seen, or that our sympathy should be focused on them. Yet I can't help but look to societies like Haiti & Sicily without thinking, that's where Republicans are taking us.

  2. Oh bullshit. There have been lots of attempts to change this in the 20th century killed by the U.S. Ariside when he came to power the first time put in a minimum wage, cracked down on the drug trade and thuggery. And we financed his overthrow within months. His record when he returned, under an agreement to carry none of his programs, was not good, but basically that was due to Clinton imposed handcuffs. His reelection when he tried to break through of those handcuffs, was destroyed by an economic boycott, and to be fair his own corruption which was largely based on deal making to try and run a government under foreign and domestic siege from day one. He made deals with gangsters who were not associated with the people trying to kill him. That was a bad choice. But it is not like we left him any good choices.

  3. The US is already at this point. The only difference in the US is that the overall economic pie is much larger, with the end result that both classes of Americans have considerably more than their Haitian counterparts.

    People at the top in Haiti get houses built from reinforced concrete and all the public money they can loot. People at the top in the US get no strings attached bailouts, minimal taxation, wages that at dozens of multiples of total inflation, and a tame government that will give them all the money they want to loot.

    People at the bottom in Haiti get famine, cardboard houses, and exist at the whim of their elites. People at the bottom in the US get 'food insecurity,' slum apartments, wages that have failed to keep pace with core inflation for thirty years, and are the victims of a capricious and authoritarian system that can imprison or bankrupt anyone–with or without cause–at the drop of a hat.

    Same political culture. Different absolute levels.

  4. Michael, your description is accurate, but your etiology reflects a highly myopic view of history. The simple fact is that Haitian rules were universal until a few hundred years ago, and continue to be the norm over much of the globe. They don't need to be imposed from above or outside–they're the natural result of natural habits of mind that arise from the earliest, simplest and most universal cultural constructs: family/tribal loyalty, inheritance of wealth/power/influence, physical violence as the final arbiter of conflict.

    It took a huge number of technological, social, economic and political innovations over many centuries to allow a small-but-growing collection of societies to break out of the Haitian model. In the process, they created a whole complex of highly artificial, and arguably completely counterintuitive, cultural and political constructs that nevertheless succeed spectacularly in fostering stability, peace and co-operation across groups much larger than the traditional family or tribe.

    How to plant the seeds of these cultural and political constructs in societies stuck in the once-universal Haitian rut is one of the most difficult and fascinating social science questions of our era. There is an ample body of both positive and negative instances–successes and failures–from which to draw useful inferences. Perhaps if our social scientists can get past the "it's all the imperialists'/colonialists'/plutocrats'/Americans' fault" dogmas, we can begin to make real progress towards resolving this vital question.

  5. "Perhaps if our social scientists can get past the “it’s all the imperialists’/colonialists’/plutocrats’/Americans’ fault” dogmas"

    It's interesting that you say this, because on reading this my reaction was the precise opposite.

    I've been working my way through Michael Sandel's Harvard lecture series on justice, as much to see what students are taught in such a course as to learn the material of the course, and it has frustrated me immensely with its STERILITY. We have him talking about, say, libertarian theory, and then about Lockean theory, but always the discussion takes place on this bizarre plane disconnected from human history, from biology, from power and politics, from any connection to the real world. It strikes me that his course would be immeasurably improved by reference to, for example, the fact that we have plenty of states of nature before our eyes in places like Somalia; and the obvious fact that societies that can move beyond the gutter do so through mechanisms that go far beyond the simple-minded ideas of these political philosophies. Sandel and his students would be well-served by having someone in the class who, at the end of every lecture stood up and asked loudly "just exactly how do your pretty ideas square with the historical realities of the behavior of imperialists/colonialists/plutocrats/Americans?"

  6. I note nobody is dealing the empirical evidence that refutes the idea that this is embedded in Haitian culture. During Aristides brief first term in office, before he was overthrown:

    There was a drastic reduction in violence in Haiti

    There was a drastic reduction malnutrition

    Moving from empiricism to speculation:

    I would guess that if he had been left in power a bit longer we might have seen increases in literacy and, given his willingness to make the rich pay more than zero taxes for the first time in Haitian history probably a drop in corruption and some actual delivery of government services.

    In short, Haiti had a chance to escape from the cycle of despair as recently as the end of the term of Bush I and the beginning of Clinton's first term. Are we not supposed to notice that the fact that this was killed by U.S. and the International community in order blame it on a failed Haitian culture?

  7. It is worth pointing out, in this regard, and pace the claim that "things are never the US' fault" the following under-reported story of today, from Slashdot:

    For the last couple of days news has been trickling in about how the US is trying to ram IP laws down Costa Rica's throat by blocking their access to the US sugar market. Techdirt has a good summary of the various commentaries and a related scoop in the Bahamas where the US is also applying IP pressure.

    "The first is in Costa Rica, which is included in the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Yet like with other free trade agreements that the US has agreed to elsewhere, this one includes draconian intellectual property law requirements. I still cannot understand why intellectual monopoly protectionism — the exact opposite of 'free trade' — gets included in free trade agreements. At least in Costa Rica, a lot of people started protesting these rules, pointing out that it would be harmful for the economy, for education and for healthcare. So the Costa Rican government has not moved forward with such laws. How has the US responded? It's blocking access to the US market of Costa Rican sugar until Costa Rica approves new copyright laws."

  8. Maynard, Michael Sandel is an unusually thoughtful guy, and hence somewhat less likely than most academics (not to mention their blog commenters) to treat history as a branch of ideological catechism.

    What "behavior of imperialists/colonialists/plutocrats/Americans" are you referring to? Killing, brutalizing and exploiting lots of people? How does that distinguish them from any other people in power just about anywhere, at any time in human history? From the rulers that preceded them in power in various third-world locales? From their behavior towards any of their other subjects, whether at home or abroad?

    France treated Haitians just awfully during its colonial rule. Then again, if you know anything at all about history, you know that France treated the French just about as horribly during the same period. Ditto for just about all of the colonial powers, some of which themselves only emerged from benighted tyranny quite recently.

    The interesting question, then, is not, "why is Haiti in about the same shape as it was in two hundred and fifty years ago?", but rather, "how did France manage to evolve, over two hundred and fifty years, from its previous Haiti-like state into its modern peaceful, orderly, democratic condition?" It can't possibly be a simple answer, given France's immensely, well, complicated history. And it sure as heck doesn't have anything to do with American trade and intellectual property policy toward Costa Rica.

    So what'll it be, Maynard? A serious consideration of the historical record's lessons–whatever they may be–regarding how to bootstrap economic, cultural and political development, or more historically ignorant dogmatic boilerplate about colonialist/imperialist exploitation?

  9. Dan, do you seriously believe that Western Europe moved from feudalism to modernity as a consequence of libertarian ideas? People gradually came to the conclusion that "hey, we are all atomic entities, with no necessary ties to each other, and we can structure our lives purely through contracts"? Do you even believe that this was an important part of the transition, rather than a minor epiphenomenon that becomes possible once life is sufficiently abstracted from the life as it used to be lived?

    And if you don't believe this, then you share my frustrations; that the world-view that Sandel is describing, when he views the world in terms of say Locke and libertarians, is a desperately deracinated view of the world. It reminds me of nothing so much of describing the world in terms of Thomism — why the hell would you do this when we have so much richer, more accurate, and less fanciful ways of describing the world.

    I understand that Sandel views his task as teaching theories of justice, not how the modern world came to be; what I am criticizing is the shallowness of the tools he (and the entire tradition he represents) brings to bear on the task. Unlike you, Dan, I don't see this as an ideological issue — I am not complaining that Sandel reaches the "wrong" conclusions on issues of gender or race or whatever. I simply find it immensely disappointing that a man who is obviously intelligent and learned in his way hews to such a narrow path. I'd be just as disappointed to encounter a Chinese historian who was utterly uninterested in the history of Europe, or an Arab sociologist who felt that reading the first thing about psychology would be a waste of his time.

  10. Maynard, as a Chinese American, I find the usual Marxist analysis of imperialism and colonialism unsatisfying. Greater ease of travel over time means that there is hardly a nation that has not been influenced by outside forces, thus allowing the ignorant to use imperialism/colonialism as the major factor in any country's failure. Imperialism and colonialism can be important factors, but there are some who really overdo it. Take China for example who fought and lost several opium wars. China was occupied by foreign forces until the end of WWII, and fought the United States during the Korean War, yet China is not as impoverished as Haiti and is fast becoming a world power. Using standard Marxist analysis, I can say that Japan is still occupied by the United States to this day thanks to the fact that the USA has a base in Okinawa, against the wishes of the local populace. But somehow this imperialist occupation has not impoverished Japan. Nor can we make an obvious argument that Japan is involved in imperialism itself.

    The beauty of Marxist analysis is that it allows "discovery" of imperialism in everything since mere trade is considered evidence of exploitation and thus imperialism. Even more wonderfully, the lack of trade can also be used, as you have, to show oppression and a stealth war against the country not traded with.

    Maynard, I suggest you review your world-view and ask if it is useful when it cannot explain why one country hurt by imperialism, becomes successful and wealthy while another, less touched by imperialism, becomes poor.

  11. Maynard, I'm not a libertarian, I don't think much of libertarianism, and I certainly don't think that libertarian ideas fueled first-world nations' complex, meandering trajectories from benighted feudalism to modern wealth, comfort and freedom. But I respect Sandel's philosophical explorations–limited though they are–much more than historical analyses rooted strictly in the dogmatic ideology of colonialist exploitation.

  12. Interesting that nobody's taking up Gar's point. I'd also add that in South/Central America, the USA (i.e., the biggest power) has frequently intervened, and frequently to help the 'state of nature' endure. In fact, given the CIA, School of Americas and other ongoing continuous efforts, it seems that the powers that be in the USA think that this 'state of nature' is highly unnatural, and must be constantly maintained.

    Curmudgeon says:

    "The US is already at this point. The only difference in the US is that the overall economic pie is much larger, with the end result that both classes of Americans have considerably more than their Haitian counterparts."

    I'd add also that the elites in the US also haven't had the time neede to really bash people down far enough. Although it really looks now like the 2007-08 crash was a sign of how bad things got; even after the GOP needed to 'go into exile', it retains enough power to block most things, and the Democratic administration is as much caretakers as reformers.

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