Friday, January 15, 2010

Culture and Policy in Haiti

How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.

I was reminded of this quote from the eminently quotable Dr. Johnson by today's column, "The Underlying Tragedy," in the New York Times by David Brooks. It is at

Brooks cites a recent anthology, "What Works in Development?," by a group of economists who conclude that we don't know how to use aid to reduce poverty. He argues that the catastrophe in Haiti is not a natural disaster story--compare the 63 people killed in the 1989 earthquake, also of 7.0 magnitude, in the SF Bay Area with the tens of thousands killed in Haiti in 2010. "This is a poverty story," he says. "It's a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services." Brooks points to the paradox that the enormous growth and poverty reduction in most of the developing world has bypassed those countries that have received the most aid, whether as macro-development or the kind of micro-projects undertaken by more than 10,000 organizations in Haiti. Among countries with comparable histories of oppression, slavery, and colonialism, some like the Dominican Republic or Barbados are doing well and contrast starkly with the devastation, corruption, and poverty of Haiti.

Brooks's conclusion is that in countries with highly progress-resistant cultures like Haiti, micro-aid is necessary but not sufficient. Programs of locally led paternalism along the lines of the Harlem Children's Zone and the No Excuses schools are needed. These efforts are "led by people who figure they don't understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don't care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement--involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance."

Among the negative cultural influences in Haiti is the voodoo religion, "which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile." The influence of "pagan gloom" that sees humans as subject to the caprice of amoral and largely indifferent gods as a brake on the development of reason, science, and economic progress has been stressed in several remarkable works by historical sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark. Christianity, universalizing the Jewish religion, changed all that with a God who was both Love and Reason (Logos) and whose Creation was understood by scientists--who were with few exceptions churchmen or at least devout Christians until the 19th century--as a book of nature to be read and interpreted. Even monotheism of a different sort--the Islamic concept of God as above reason, a kind of pure Will--stunted the growth of scientific discovery and technological development in the wide areas of Christendom (the Middle East, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula) that the Muslim armies conquered. (There is much Muslim triumphalism these days about Arab and Muslim contributions to science and innovation in the Middle Ages, but as Stark shows, these were primarily the work of Jewish and Christian dhimmis in the conquered regions, and faded as they assimilated.) The negative cultural influence of voodoo--the national although not the official religion of Haiti--is hard to overestimate. The official religion is Catholic Christianity, but as in South America, it failed to take deep root and its local expression was more changed by the culture than changing it.

Echoing Johnson's sentiment, the economist Abhijit Banerjee draws a realistic conclusion that enthusiastic policy wonks need to take to heart: "It is not clear that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control." Other recent studies, by Oxford economics professor Paul Collier and the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, point to combinations of factors that keep the poorest countries poor--violence and civil war, lack of property rights, corruption, etc. Effective policy that actually helps requires attention to this work as well as to the deep cultural changes that are needed to sustain growth and development.

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