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The Challenge of Building or Re-building Impoverished Communities

January 18, 2010


The tragic aftermath of events in Haiti remind us how fragile manmade communities can be when faced with the awesome power of nature. Yet we know that some communities prove more resilient than others when crises occur. The general rule, unfortunately, is that resiliency directly correlates with wealth. The more money a community can spend on hardening its infrastructure the better it does. New York Times‘ op-ed columnist David Brooks recalls how much better San Francisco fared than Haiti when it was hit by an earthquake of similar magnitude [“The Underlying Tragedy,” 15 January 2010]. He writes:

“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.”

The purpose of Brooks’ column is not discuss how devastating natural disasters can be. He wants people to know that it is poverty that makes some disasters worse than others. He continues:

“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.”

As a right of center moderate, Brooks’ voice is more likely to gain an audience than commentators on either the liberal or conservative fringes. He’s not necessarily pointing a finger at the Obama administration since no administration (Republican or Democrat) has managed to break the code about how to reduce global poverty. If he’s accusing the President of anything, it’s hyperbole. I suspect Brooks believes that in a few weeks or months the tragedy of Haiti will be old news, like Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami that leveled Banda Aceh. Haiti’s best hope lies in the fact that, geographically speaking, it sits in America’s front yard. Brooks asserts that if the President’s words are to be more than rhetoric, “he’s going to have to acknowledge a few difficult truths.” He continues:

“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.”

There are reasons, of course, that countries like China fare better economically than countries like Haiti. Education (Haiti has 53% literacy compared to China’s 91%) and healthcare (a Haitian’s life expectancy is 61 years compared to a Chinese individual’s 73.5 years) come to mind. But such differences alone can’t explain why programs to reduce poverty have failed generally. Brooks continues:

“In the recent anthology ‘What Works in Development?,’ a group of economists try to sort out what we’ve learned. The picture is grim. There are no policy levers that consistently correlate to increased growth. There is nearly zero correlation between how a developing economy does one decade and how it does the next. There is no consistently proven way to reduce corruption. Even improving governing institutions doesn’t seem to produce the expected results.”

I have written a lot about corruption over the past few years. My opinion is that fighting corruption is the single most important thing that needs to be done before serious development efforts are undertaken. The rub, as Brooks points out, is that while improving governance institutions and practices is important, corruption lives and breeds in the hearts of individuals not organizations. Science fiction writer David Brin remarked, “It is said that power corrupts, but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible.” Changing the hearts of men is much more difficult than tinkering with policies and organizational structures. The only approach that can root out corruption is creating a system where people are forced to govern in the bright light of public scrutiny. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. Brooks continues:

“The chastened tone of these essays is captured by the economist Abhijit Banerjee: ‘It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control.'”

Ouch! No one in the development field wants to believe that spurring development defies good plans and policies. I have consistently promoted the idea that development progresses on the backs of entrepreneurs. The logical implication of that assumption is that policies that promote a better climate for entrepreneurs also foster a better climate for development. A number of analysts have noted that the simple publication of the World Bank’s Doing Business Index spurred countries to make their laws and regulations more business friendly. As a result, numerous countries have improved their ability to attract foreign direct investment. Attracting foreign direct investment is critical if sustainable development is going to be achieved. Brooks continues with his list of hard truths:

“The second hard truth is that micro-aid is vital but insufficient. Given the failures of macrodevelopment, aid organizations often focus on microprojects. More than 10,000 organizations perform missions of this sort in Haiti. By some estimates, Haiti has more nongovernmental organizations per capita than any other place on earth. They are doing the Lord’s work, especially these days, but even a blizzard of these efforts does not seem to add up to comprehensive change.”

On this point I agree with Brooks. What Haiti needs is real jobs not make-work projects. Entrepreneurs, not NGOs, create jobs. NGOs can help foster the conditions that help entrepreneurs get started, but they are not in the business of business. Brooks continues:

“Third, it is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle 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.”

Haiti, of course, is not alone is having to overcome cultural challenges to achieve progress. India’s lingering caste system is also holding that country back. Ethiopia and Yemen are plagued by a culture held back by the widespread use of Qat, a narcotic leaf. Brooks is correct, however, that when culture is a problem, the problem should be corrected not tolerated.

“Fourth, it’s time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism. These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, 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. It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.”

Hear, Hear! Business people are naturally goal- and result-oriented. If you’ve never heard about the Harlem Children’s Zone, or the results it has achieved, I recommend you click on the link and read about its stunning success. Brooks concludes:

“The late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington used to acknowledge that cultural change is hard, but cultures do change after major traumas. This earthquake is certainly a trauma. The only question is whether the outside world continues with the same old, same old.”

Not every past approach has failed (see my post entitled Programs that Fight Poverty), but that is not really Brooks’ point. The underlying point of his column is that scalability is hard to achieve. The Harlem Children’s Zone works because the entire community is behind it. Parents whose children aren’t selected in lotteries to participate in some of the programs are devastated. That kind of commitment and passion is required to make communities successful and resilient. Is it possible to scale up a program like that for an entire country? Probably not. The key is community involvement. If programs can be found and implemented that allow Haiti to rise Phoenix-like, community by community, out of the rubble so that, a generation from now, it stands as a beacon of progress in the Caribbean, then President Obama’s promise that Haiti “will not be forgotten” would prove to be more than political rhetoric.

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