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].