UPDATE on 10/20/2010: Here’s a link to a good TED talk on how the vast majority (like, ~99% perhaps) of lives lost during the Haiti earthquake were due to poor building construction. The speaker notes that what is required for better buildings isn’t more money beyond what’s already required to rebuild Haiti, but just more training for Haitian builders (at a minimal extra cost.)
I read a blog post called “If You Rebuild It, They Will Come” by a man named Paul Shirley. In it, Mr. Shirley argues that we shouldn’t give/have given money to the Haiti relief effort due to the poor position they (he claims) put themselves in. To me, even if the Haitian’s were entirely to blame for the damage the earthquake did to their country (I believe luck & history had a lot to do with it), such criticism is missing the point of an urgent relief effort.
Mr. Shirley’s criticism is a bit like giving a lecture to a badly injured speeding motorist, as he bleeds to death, on how he should have driven more carefully, rather than taking him to a hospital. I’d prefer to take him to the hospital first, and give him the lecture later. Mr. Shirley also seems to assume that the governmental and institutional failures of Haiti should be reasons to deny its citizens aid. For starters, in no point in Haiti’s history do ordinary citizens appear to have be in a position to build up either the physical or intellectual capital necessary to privately look after their own needs beyond a subsistence living. With regard to intellectual capital, schooling in the local Creole language did not even occur until 1922, less than 90 years ago.
(BTW: I’ve linked many of my sources, but if I state something unlinked/cited, it is from Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge.)
Haitian civil unrest & violence
Mr. Shirley might argue that these citizens who are now victims of the quake are the very ones who caused the violence and civil unrest that’s been the source of so many problems throughout Haiti’s unstable history. I suspect he would be wrong. Let’s look at a parallel case in Afghanistan or Iraq. You could blame the Taliban in Afghanistan for the poor conditions and civil rights abuses. However, the Taliban are estimated to number in the tens of thousands in Afghanistan. Let’s assume there are 100,000 of them. The Afghanistan population totals about 28 million. That means that only 0.36% of the population are Taliban, or 1 in 280. You might counter by saying that yes, 279 out of 280 AREN’T Taliban insurgents, but since they outnumber them, why don’t they revolt and kick them out of the country if they don’t like the conditions caused by the Taliban? I would suspect it’s the same reason I wouldn’t take up arms against the US government if it decided to become a totalitarian dictatorship tomorrow: I’d get slaughtered. The Afghanistan people are poor, like the people in Haiti (who are even poorer.) They lack education and military and financial strength.
Similarly in Iraq, there are roughly 100,000 – 130,000 insurgents. If we divide 130,000 by the population of 31 million we get 0.42%, or about 1 in 240 people. My point here is that a relatively small amount of people with guns and resources can control a much large number of people without one or the other. Thus, blaming the typical Haitian citizen for not kicking violent organized groups out of the country is unrealistic.
Poverty and lack of financial & intellectual capital
However, of that ‘wealth’, about half of it is in the hands of Haiti’s richest 1%. Thus, GDP per capita for 99% of the country is actually $1 per day.
“About 80% of the population were estimated to be living in poverty in 2003. Most Haitians live on $2 or less per day.  Haiti has 50% illiteracy, and over 80% of college graduates from Haiti have emigrated, mostly to the United States.”
So of those folks that DO get access to education (very few), 4 out of 5 leave the country for greener pastures. (And who could blame them? Mr. Shirley certainly wouldn’t, unless they stayed behind to contribute to their home country’s economy and got crushed in the earthquake; then he’d blame them.)
Government & Corruption
I’ve established why I believe it’s ridiculous to assume that Haiti’s private sector could’ve been expected to prepare for the earthquake, which would’ve been relatively unaffordable, but what about the government? Surely there must have been some capital stored up to build earthquake-proof houses etc for the masses? Unfortunately, that is also not true, in part due to looting of Haiti’s coffers by corrupt officials: “It is estimated that [a former Haitian president, his wife] and three other people took $504 million from the Haitian public treasury between 1971 and 1986.”
“Similarly millions was stolen by [former president] Aristide. During the Aristide era, drug trafficking emerged as a major industry. Beaudoin Ketant, a notorious international drug trafficker and close partner of Aristide, confessed that Aristide “turned the country into a narco-country. It’s a one-man show. You either pay (Aristide) or you die”. The BBC describes pyramid schemes, in which Haitians lost hundreds of millions in 2002, as the “only real economic initiative” of the Aristide years.”
Okay, so officials have been corrupt and have stolen hundreds of millions from the government over the years, but what about all the foreign aid that Haiti has received?
“Foreign aid makes up approximately 30–40% of the national government’s budget. The largest donor is the US, followed by Canada and the European Union. From 1990 to 2003, Haiti received more than $4 billion in aid.”
$4 billion might sound like a large amount of money, and it is, until you divide it by population. Let’s assume the aid was spread out evenly over 13 years and that the population was, on average, 7.6 million. That equates to $308 million per year, or $40.50 per person per year, which is about 1 month’s wages for most people in Haiti. Could you rebuild your house on a sturdy earthquake proof foundation for $40 bucks, or even 1 month’s salary? Or how about relocating to what might be a safer place (regardless of whether you can earn a living there)?
“In 2005 Haiti’s total external debt reached an estimated US$1.3 billion, which corresponds to a debt per capita of US$169. In September 2009, Haiti met the conditions set out by the IMF and World Bank‘s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries program to qualify for cancellation of its external debt. ”
So until recently, the government was carrying debt equal to 18.7% of its 2008 GDP. That’s not a very strong base from which to run a deficit with large-scale public infrastructure projects. To put it into comparison, the US’s record-high government debt is around 8% of GDP, only 43% of that of Haiti’s in % of GDP terms.
Who should rebuild Haiti?
Mr. Shirley states “I don’t know whose responsibility it is [to rebuild Haiti], either. What I do know is that it is not the responsibility of the outside world to provide help. [Ward’s note: which is basically saying it’s either Haiti’s responsibility or no ones.] It’s nice if we do, but it is not a requirement, especially when people choose to influence their own existences negatively, whether by having too many children when they can’t afford them or by failing to recognize that living in a concrete bunker might not be the best way to protect one’s family, whether an earthquake happens or not.”
On the subject of family sizes in Haiti, for one thing, birth control is likely very inaccessible. (If Mr. Shirley would then urge Haitians simply to not have sex, he would be severely overestimating the will power of all but a special class of human beings.) Secondly, it may actually be in the economic self interest of Haitians to have large families (to say nothing of emotional self interests.) Two thirds of Haitians support themselves by subsistence agriculture. On a farm, more children equals free labor, so it may be rational for individual families to continue have larger families, despite their poverty.
Logically I can’t dispute whether or not better off people have a ‘requirement’ do help those much worse off. Morally I disagree. I believe those with way more money than they need to make them happy (the western world) has a strong moral imperative to better the conditions of those worse off.
How would you want the world to be if you were randomly placed in it?
There is a very simple thought experiment that I find helpful in defending the ideal that those with a lot should help those with a little. Imagine that you were given a chance before birth to allocate all the resources in the world to various countries, regions, and peoples of the world. You can do this however you want. The catch is that afterwards, you will be randomly placed into that world population of about 6.5 billion. Given income distribution in our world (as of the year 2000), you would have a 45% chance of living off less than $3/day (including a 23% chance of living off less than $2/day, the level that Haiti is at.) 2 out of 3 times you would be living off less than $14/day. You would only have a 13% (1 in 8 ) chance of being relatively affluent & making at least $11,500 per year (1997 data), which is well below the poverty line for a family in the United States. (The US median income per family is about $55,000 per year, making us extremely wealthy by worldwide standards.)
We live in a world where the richest 10% of the population owns 85% of its assets, and the poorest 50% owns 1%. Would you choose to distribute resources as they are today, knowing that you’re most likely to live your life in incredible poverty (by US standards)? Or would you choose to move things around a bit, giving yourself a chance to live comfortably no matter where you happen to be born?
Two times the wealth doesn’t equal two times the happiness
I would choose the latter, and I suspect many other people would as well for the following reason. Pretend someone offers to let you flip a coin for your entire net worth. If the coin lands heads, you double your wealth. If it’s tails, you are utterly wiped out and have nothing: no house, no savings, no clothes/cars/iPhone etc. Would you take the gamble? I suspect 98% of Americans would not. The reason? Having twice as much wealth doesn’t bring us twice as much happiness. The more money we make, the less valuable each dollar is to us. Economists refer to this trait as being ‘risk averse.’ Losing what we already have hurts more than gaining an equivalent amount, so we pay for security in the form of insurance or diversified mutual funds.
Of course, in terms of the ‘where would you be born’ thought experiment, the results of birth misfortune are much more dire than simply losing your current wealth. Not only do you have a 7/8 chance of making less than $11,500, you will likely lose your paths of opportunity to a better life: education, health, human rights, and physical security.
One issue I haven’t addressed is the proper incentive system for people, not just “ideal” wealth distribution. If someone does something harmful to themselves, you want to discourage them from doing so again. I’ve already explained why I believe the vast majority of impoverished Haitian’s are NOT very responsible for their fate, thus, it makes little sense to punish them by withholding aid.
Where possible to do so effectively, the US & private donors should definitely make an attempt to reform Haiti’s government and provide citizens with better opportunities to help themselves. That being said, we can do a lot in the mean time.
In closing, I urge thinking people to avoid assigning blame to people in trouble simply because they have had the misfortune to be born in a different part of the world. This is an easy trap to fall into because it absolves the blamer of all responsibility to help. It is also easy to forget how incredibly privileged we are in western Europe & the United States.
Fortunately, judging from the roughly $1 billion in private donations from the American charities to Haiti, the vast majority of people are ignoring Mr. Shirley’s callous and faulty reasoning and donating however they can to help the Haiti relief effort. If you haven’t already, I urge you to do the same.
“Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences.”
– John Stuart Mill