Obviously, the people in Haiti, more floundering than recovering in the aftermath of Tuesday’s earthquake near the capital city of Port-au-Prince, are in desperate need of food, clean water, and medical supplies and attention. Upon hearing earlier that President Barack Obama has committed $100 million in taxpayer-funded aid to the ravaged Caribbean nation, however, two thoughts crossed my mind — why he didn’t commit more, and whether any amount would be enough.
Flash back to February of last year, when the newly inaugurated Obama promised a whopping $900 million in taxpayer-funded aid money to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian government in the Gaza Strip, money intended to help the Palestinian people rebuild from damage caused by Israeli military forces which went after Hamas fighters in response to rocket attacks on the Israeli people, money which was destined for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip rather than the West Bank, where things are more insulated from Hamas, and where Obama’s predecessor had previously sent roughly $80 million in aid in order to ensure that it did not fall in the hands of the terrorist organization
Of course, the New York Times pointed out at the time that the Obama administration assured the American people that the $900 million was to be given through nongovernmental organization so as not to fall into the hands of Hamas — but considering that this administration cannot even assess the successes or failures of its so-called “stimulus” package without fabricating numbers and making up whole congressional district, excuse me if my confidence wasn’t at an all-time high that our taxpayer money would go to rebuilding damage and not to restocking arms and rockets.
Nevertheless, the people of Haiti endured a natural disaster, a catastrophic event which–contrary to what nincompoops like Pat Robertson and Danny Glover might think–they did not bring upon themselves, and they will receive $800 million LESS in aid from the American government than was sent to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, an area which only incurred any damage at all because Hamas fighters made a conscious decision to hide behind innocent Palestinian women and children and lob rockets into Israel, intentionally targeting schools and hospitals and shopping centers.
As for my second thought, which pondered whether any amount of aid money sent to Haiti would truly be enough, consider what New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote today about the real tragedy here being poverty, not an earthquake.
On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died.
This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services. On Thursday, President Obama told the people of Haiti: “You will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten.” If he is going to remain faithful to that vow then he is going to have to use this tragedy as an occasion to rethink our approach to global poverty. He’s going to have to acknowledge a few difficult truths.
The first of those truths is that we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty. Over the past few decades, the world has spent trillions of dollars to generate growth in the developing world. The countries that have not received much aid, like China, have seen tremendous growth and tremendous poverty reductions. The countries that have received aid, like Haiti, have not.
So why, Brooks asks, is Haiti so poor? There are a number of reasons, he posits, but the one which was more intriguing to me than the others–perhaps because it wil be so much more difficult for left-leaning folks to understand and admit to–is that culture is largely at the center of global poverty.
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.
Liberals across the world want to throw more money at the problem. They want to get governments more involved. None of it, however, will work. Obviously, we need to get Haiti back on its feet, and at the end of the day we’ll see that private donations and help will likely exceed anything provided by government. But from that point forward, the real change has to come from the bottom up, and with so many charitable organizations having been on the ground in Haiti before this terrible disaster, I can’t help but wonder what, if anything, can be done in the future.