Cultural poverty traps and Indiana Jones

I’m not sure what Andy is disagreeing with me about; while the good news from Chiaromonte is nice to hear, it isn’t overwhelming (60% of families with cars and telephones, in the early 90s?).  But the important thing is that the crushing poverty, stasis, and fatalism that bound the community until so recently was only dispersed by breaking its isolation from a world with more constructive norms and conventions (TV, roads, travel, emigration and return), just as Calabrian/Sicilian medievalism broke apart when Italian immigrants moved into enclaves surrounded by New York and Boston, rather than more villages like theirs as far as the eye could see.

Haiti has emigration going for it (see below for some caveats even on this score), as Andy points out, and “doomed” was hyperbolic on my part. But it doesn’t have much else, and there will be plenty of sabotage to overcome.  Rich elites in places like Haiti tend to despise their peasantry and proletariat (why all his friends thought Tolstoy was nuts).  I was in Iran before the revolution hanging out with very comfortable profs at the University of Tehran, working on a curriculum development project for a sort of Tehran State (if you think of U of T as the Stanford of the place and time).  These guys had lunch at the Hilton, ordered pork chops and BLT’s from the English menu, lived up on the hill (Tehran is sort of a great tilted plane), and had dogs as pets. More than one of them informed me, helpfully trying to knock the corners off my naïveté, that “it doesn’t matter what you teach these people; they’re ignorant peasants and will learn nothing.”  It felt a little like being in the court of Catherine the Great, with everyone speaking French and being as un-Russian as possible.

More important, I think, is that these guys have it very good now, and have no reason to believe that in a more competitive meritocratic society, even if its average income increased greatly, they could be as comfortable as they are now.  They certainly couldn’t be as relatively advantaged, and Bob Frank has explained and explained that relative status trumps absolute amount of stuff every time.And of course, they have the guns.

What worries me most about Haiti’s future is the unintended lesson of cargo comfort (delivering stuff, no matter how essential and useful water, food and shelter obviously are now) and remittances both: when people get stuff they didn’t make (or buy with what they make) it’s terribly easy to subconsciously  infer that they can’t do for themselves, and easier when stuff is delivered by white people to blacks in a world with precious little evidence of blacks delivering to whites from prosperity rather than extortion.  This (not the race part)  is the curse of a resource-extraction-based economy (one Haiti doesn’t have to worry about, having nothing to dig up and sell).  Remittances from emigrants are a little different, but villages like the ones in Mexico with no men and everyone living on money from people working in the US are at the least in a very fragile sociological state, and I’m not aware that their local economies are creating much value where the kids can see it happen.

“White man’s burden” movies like the Indiana Jones series play this message out: the cookie-cutter plot is that a bunch of brown people are having a terrible time and can’t do anything about it until a white guy comes into town and saves them (I haven’t seen it, but have the impression Avatar follows this template).  Not too different from the parfait gentil knight saving the helpless peasants from the dragon up the valley; since David and Jeanne d’Arc, I don’t remember a lot of stories about the farm boy (or the Puerto Rican on the loading dock) saving a roomful of bankers and generals from something; it was Robert Gould Shaw who made it possible for the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts to get their licks in. Toussaint L’Ouverture is a glorious Haitian exception to this meme, but it was a long time ago and the docs running the rural medical centers, and the guys handing out the water and biscuits at the airport, seem to be all white now.

One implication of emigration and remittances for Haiti is that Haitians can do it (and indeed, Haitians as a group have been very successful in the US), but the other is that they can’t do it in Haiti. I don’t know which lesson is the more salient in fact.  Of course cultures can change, and do.  But my impression is that they change by interchange with other cultures, very rarely by some sort of bootstrap autonomous evolution, and Haiti has very little of this kind of interchange, especially until (if) the emigrants start to repatriate.  No, Canadians sunning on the beach don’t count.  Dürer had to go to Italy to learn to draw; Bach had to study Vivaldi to make the best possible German music (yes, and the Italians learned art from the Greeks and pasta from China). After all, social capital formation is a market failure, just like a prisoners’ dilemma.  A village full of smart, competent individuals  are hard put to start cooperating and trusting each other without something besides money and technology falling out of the sky on them, especially with local plutocrats sowing fear and suspicion.

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.

15 thoughts on “Cultural poverty traps and Indiana Jones”

  1. You keep saying "culture", but what about "government"? Or do you just assume that, even in a country like Haiti, government is automatically so responsive to the people as to just be an element of culture, rather than to a real extent something imposed from above?

  2. A common unintended side-effect of a bunch of foreigners comng in and giving stuff away free out of the kindness of our hearts is that local entrepreneurs are ruined – and they are usually influential and can obstruct things. One of the key lessons of famine relief is to create income by public works: what usually happens in a famine is the collapse of buying power, not production. So Sen confirms that Friedman was right: "give them (the poor) some money", and a trader will usually show up with bags of food on the back of his camel. In a natural disaster like Haiti's, the economic network is down, so you probably have to operate on communist/Pentagon rules for a short while. But getting the economy moving again requires spending cash. Are the aid agencies in Haiti waving dollar bills at survivors willing to do rough labour?

  3. I have somewhat limited experience with Haiti, through a parish twinning program that was extremely active (when I left, I think we were sponsoring the education of 300 individual children, including a school lunch program and rebuilding of the school, and had funded the building of a clinic). So here are my ersatz observations:

    The first was, it's hard for us to imagine how arduous even basic transactions are. You can't just "send" a donation to a Haitian person. We used to have to courier checks through friendly trusted intermediaries, to Haiti, and then, with someone who lived in the capital, until a person from the parish could get a ride in to pick it up. But the more interesting thing was that when a Haitian based organization set up an electronic transfer system (Fonkoze — a great, great group if you are looking for one to donate to), the local priests refused to use it in preference to a local bank that had no electronic transaction capability. They wouldn't even use it for purposes of the international transfer (at least until the American guy in Haiti who "stored" the check refused to do it anymore because of security concerns for himself and his family — these were big checks by Haitian standards), even if they left the money longer term in another bank. We had our suspicions as to why, but we didn't really know. I suspected that the local priests simply wanted to do their local banker friends the favor.

    Second, we funded the purchase of an electronic mill, to bypass the expense that most Haitian farmers have to go through to get their grain milled. It was a replacement — an aid group called Caritas (German) had funded one but had neglected to provide for any upkeep and it burned out after a single harvest. My belief is that if those farmers had any of their own resources in that machine, this would have been a lot less likely to happen. I argued for doing that — a small fee (much smaller than commercially available services) for a service contract. A service contract was purchased, but with donations. When I suggested that a local person be trained in order to provide service, I was told that the local priests concluded that it would make the others "too jealous" to see someone paid in cash.

    Finally, a donor donated $5000 to start a husbandry type program through Heifer Int'l (husbandry programs in Haiti are very dicey because of ecological implications, but they can be done). The priest took the money and bought property with it. I think that one finally brought on some repercussions.

    Are you getting the idea? Even those who genuinely contribute to the welfare of their fellow citizens have a very controlling and paternalistic attitude that discourages individual achievement.

    Another thing that someone told me but that I have never really sought to explore is the notion that the educated classes in Haiti often refuse to engage in manual labor, even if there is nothing else to do. This is why the parish group I was part of would not fund high school education, because it had seen this phenomenon at work in the capital, so it concentrated all of its efforts on educating all children to a minimal level.

    I now donate to Fonkoze and SOIL, which are much more oriented to indigenous empowerment.

  4. Haiti is doomed by overpopulation.

    The ecology has collapsed; the landscape has irretrevably lost so much of its productivity that Haiti cannot approach feeding itself. But Haiti has few other resources to trade for food. So the people scrounge, cutting every tree and sapling for household cooking, and overwork what arable lands remain, damaging them, in a vicious downward spiral. They overfish because they must, and so the fish stocks decline.

    The society of Haiti cannot be made healthy until the landscape of Haiti is made healthy.

    "The highest function of ecology is an understanding of consequences" Liet-Kynes, _Dune_

    "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives

    alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is

    quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell

    and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his

    business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in

    a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told


    Aldo Leopold, _Round_River_

  5. The destruction of Haiti's land and forests, bad as it is, can't be the answer, because when Haitians go away to make a living, they go to a place with an even higher population density and less arable land, namely Queens. Singapore's land is all parks and streets and the Singaporeans are very prosperous. Trade is a perfectly adequate antidote to domestic food scarcity, as long as you can make something to trade with (and the world as a whole is taking good care of its farmland, which is something that does worry me, but not as a Haitian issue).

  6. "Trade is a perfectly adequate antidote to domestic food scarcity, as long as you can make something to trade with (and the world as a whole is taking good care of its farmland, which is something that does worry me, but not as a Haitian issue)."

    Until the rapidly declining curve of oil exports makes the world bigger and bigger and makes trade — especially of basic commodities highly valued everywhere — prohibitive. The world has probably peaked in global oil extraction; the easy oil is gone, the remainder requires more and more energy to extract, reducing the net yield. Moreover, the exporting countries continue to use more and more of their own production and thus the net available for importing countries declines even faster. A globalized "trade world" presumes an abundant supply of energy (oil, really) that makes the cost of shipping goods across the world essentially irrelevant. The condition obtained for a time — it will not be true in the future. So prescriptions that ignore local or at least bioregional self-sufficiency are prescriptions for catastrophe.

  7. Barbara, it sounds like a good part of the problem in that case was the local Priest. I'm not denying that there are cultural problems. But it overlooks the way politics and governance can change all this – if it is not stomped on by foreign intervention. Aristide when he was first elected put in a modest program that looked like it would make great strides. He instituted a minimum wage, modestly taxed the rich to fund public education, stomped down on the drug trade. And he was overthrown in a matter of months by the U.S. funded military. This had full U.S. support, as shown by the refusal of the U.S. to go after Haitian military bank accounts.

    When Clinton came in, the Clinton admin negotiated with Aristide. He woulld be restored to power in return for dropping the minimum wage idea, cutting rather than increasing public spending, and basically dropping everything that offend U.S. and Haitian elites. When the Haitian military refused to abide by this deal, the U.S. intervened by force to put Ariside back, with no ability to impement any of his program. And since then Ariside's role has been arguably less positive, though even when nominally in power the second time, he face an environment contrained by U.S. intervention from day one which offered no good choices. But the tremendous progress made in a short time when Aristide first took office is evidence the prime cause of Haitian misery even today are the U.S. and French feet on Haitian necks, rather than failures of culture.

  8. James: "But getting the economy moving again requires spending cash. Are the aid agencies in Haiti waving dollar bills at survivors willing to do rough labour?"

    I would guess 'yes', unless there is some incredible shortage of grunt work needing to be done, and/or an incredible surplus of foreigners on the scene willing to do that grunt work. And considering that cleaning up whole cities' worth of rubble is the grunt work………

  9. The real point is that the local priest was not unusual — he was typical. We dealt with more than one over the years. They were very well educated, dedicated men, but they had a paternalistic attitude, reinforced by a paternalistic church, which made it difficult to empower villagers. I believe they did what they did because they thought it was for the best. Now just imagine what motivates well educated or more affluent people when they have no affection for the dispossessed.

  10. As to your other points — there is no doubt that the U.S. role in Haiti has been largely unconstructive and self-serving. U.S. farm subsidies have destabilized Haiti even further by making agriculture, the only economic activity most Haitians are equipped to engage in, much less profitable.

  11. >ow just imagine what motivates well educated or more affluent people when they have no affection for the dispossessed.

    OK, but this is largely true even in rich nations. It is not unknown for well-meaning liberals to be counterproductive and condescending. The main way this trap gets broken is when ordinary people organize and extract concessions from the elites. Which is a lot easier when you don't have powerful foreigners backing the elites against the people

    >There is no doubt that the U.S. role in Haiti has been largely unconstructive and self-serving.

    Where I disagree with O'Hare (and don't know whether you and I disagree or not) is that I think support of Haitian elites against most of the population is the main cause Haiti's suffering, and the primary solution (after the immediate crisis is past) is to get the rich world's foot off Haiti's neck. (I would include canceling Haiti's debt in this.) Cultural problems such as you describe can be overcome once the Haitian elite don't have overwhelming foreign backing in keeping the Haitian poor in their place. If Haiti is doomed, it because there seems no real prospect of that happening. The IMF has just extended a 100 million dollar additional loan to Haiti (which of course will have to be paid back.) Worse cutting public spending is one of the conditions of that loan.

  12. I am not disagreeing, but I am not sure I agree that getting the rich world to stop supporting Haitian elites is a cure all. I am sure it can't hurt. Honestly, I think there are better examples for what you are describing in Africa, where there are countries that have much more productive capacity and resources than Haiti does.

    The example of Aristide is indeed a painful one.

  13. Gar Lipow says:

    "OK, but this is largely true even in rich nations. It is not unknown for well-meaning liberals to be counterproductive and condescending. The main way this trap gets broken is when ordinary people organize and extract concessions from the elites. Which is a lot easier when you don’t have powerful foreigners backing the elites against the people"

    And this would be the story of Haiti since slaves were first brought there. It's amazing to see how many people can blame inability on the beating victim, and not notice the repeated beatings.

  14. Thanks Barry. That was the point I was trying to make. Right now the Pentagon has been turning away planeload of aid from Doctors Without Borders. Because they want supplies going in until enough military are in place? Because they want to use the airport and supply line bandwidth for the military? Yeah, Haiti's big problems is lack of cultural capital. To solve this, the beatings will continue until morale improves.. Though when it comes to U.S. and French relations with Haiti it seems like that tag never closes.

  15. Note I put the third and second to the last sentences in the above post in a faux "irony" tag. If anyone wonders what the final sentence refers to.

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