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The end of Haiti? (economist.com)
182 points by cwan on Jan 14, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 100 comments

I am from Somalia, and I have witnessed its decay right to its downfall, including the three days during which the government dispersed and the central bank threw out its stash of local currency in large garbage bins.

Haiti will not die. For one, the suffering has been universally afflicted on all Haitians. This will strengthen their bond more than anything. Even if warlords and gangs form their own fiefdoms throughout the country, the humanitarian efforts, whenever they're ready a year or ten from now, can always tap into that shared Haitian identity, forged through an equally-endured hardship.

An earthquake has no one to blame. Probably as many Somalis died as in Haiti (though not in one day) but we only have ourselves to blame, and each victim left a blood debt on his killer, which "must" be avenged (or it has been avenged, and now the victim's family are awaiting reprisals)

"An earthquake has no one to blame"

I agree. However, you can get spin doctors and loonies who manage to convince others that some group is to blame. Once they have done that they can manipulate the situation in a direction that pleases them. Witness for example demented Pat Robertson who makes the superstitious claim that the misery in Haiti is a direct result of a pact with the devil when Haiti's people (then slaves) overthrew their French masters two centuries ago.

I've heard this name Pat Robertson a few times on the 'net. I assume he's in the USA? Can anyone give an audio/video link to his talk where he suggests Haiti's slaves shouldn't have overthrown their French masters as they did?


Oh never mind, found it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59NCduEhkBM#t=0m48s on a show called The Young Turks (TYT).

If you listen to what he says, rather than the commentary, then here is the progression.

1) Haitians were under the heel of the French colonialists

2) Some Haitians [in 1804] made a deal with the devil for release from slavery

3) They were cursed because of that deal

4) Bad stuff has happened to Haiti since, including this earthquake

Note, he doesn't say it's the Haitians fault - though I'm sure he would say it was the fault in part of whichever small group made the pact in (1) 200 years ago. Nor does he say they shouldn't have revolted; just that they did it wrong. He seems genuinely concerned to me. He rightly notes that DR is a lot better off and they share the island with Haiti. This last point makes the tragedy of Haitian poverty as much about politics as anything else.

If you don't believe in the Devil then you can ignore his statement as it will be nonsensical to you. To the TYT guy I'd say that he shouldn't be too shocked - people do "make deals with the Devil". Robertson may also be using it as a metaphor for rejecting the Gospel.

Edit: there is actually some evidence to support Robertson's claim, eg[...]

Edit2: cut and pasted to my blog, http://alicious.com/2010/haitian-revolution-devil-pact/ as is OT here.

You're kidding, right?

About which bit do you think I'm joking?

An earthquake has no one to blame.

The event itself does not, it's true. But there certainly is someone to blame for the shoddy construction standards and grievous lack of preparation. The government is entirely accountable for these things.

Easy to say if you're coming from the vantage point of someone living in a rich country.

How many deaths have you heard about in the Dominican Republic?

Its not exactly Luxembourg over there but they survived.

The earthquake epicenter was in Haiti. It wasn't felt as strongly in the Dom. Rep.

About 6 years ago, an earthquake centered in the northern part of the island destroyed the nearby towns.

The buildings were made to withstand hurricanes, not earthquakes. They chose the less frequent of two disasters to be exposed to.

Coming from Trinidad and Tobago, where we get both, I assure you it's possible to build in a way to withstand both.

GDP per capita (World Bank, 2008):

  $24,742 Trinidad and Tobago (28th)
   $1,177 Haiti (146th)
What's possible in a rich country isn't much of an example of what's possible in a dirt poor country -- the poorest in the western hemisphere. (What other expenditures should Haitians have forgone to afford in-advance disaster preparations and rich-country building standards, for an earthquake that might never come?)

Poverty is the ultimate killer here. An event like the earthquake just sets the time-of-death. Blame the poverty, and the policies which perpetuate it, sure. Blaming the Haitian government for not buying insurance -- building standards and disaster preparedness -- they couldn't have afforded anyway is silly.

Agreed. As an example of the abject poverty there compared to even their closest neighbour.

Last night my parents recounted their trip (about 10 years ago) to the Dominican Republic. A lot of Haitian labour work in the DR in the fields etc (usual "immigrant labour" stuff you get everywhere). The average wage was about $1 a day. To put it in perspective in the DR (admittedly in the tourist resorts) you bought Coke for $1 :)

But $1 didn't buy you a lot more even in the non-tourist regions. And Haitians worked there, apparently, because the wages were good!

Calling it a mess is an understatement I think.

(I also showed my Dad this link and he said [rough quote] "it was pretty much a dying country when we went there")

>Poverty is the ultimate killer here.

But what is the cause of the poverty. Is it overpopulated for the resources available? Is the endemic use of heroin marring the countries ability to govern itself? Is it being exploited by outsiders who are creaming off the benefit of the natural resources for themselves? ...

Those are good questions. I defer to some theories aired on the MarginalRevolution blog -- none definitive, some quite arguable, but most plausible enough to consider:


And an essay on the topic also relayed via that blog:


There has been no government, in effect, to date, or worse, a corrupt government that was hurting its own people.

Well then that's the problem, isn't it?

Look, my point is that something could have been done to prepare, and was not. Mahmud's talking like it's a no-fault act of god that's going to bring everyone together in a solidarity of fellow suffering - I'm saying, if I was Haitian and I'd somehow managed to survive this disaster, I'd compare to how other countries deal with this kind of thing and probably be more angry than ever.

Update: I am evidently not stating my point very well. I'm not looking for a scapegoat. I'm trying to raise the possibility that these low expectations of government, this disregard for accountability, and this willingness to dismiss gross negligence and incompetence as somehow inherent in these "other" societies are a big part of the problem.

"No-one to blame" indeed. Let me tell you what would happen to the mayor of a Japanese town if he let this happen and then just shrugged his shoulders and claimed there was "no-one to blame".

I don't think the Haitians have that sense of 1st World, consumer rights, entitled mindset. Most construction is done by the local guys, up to the budget and specs of the owner. Really. Safety or aesthetics play very little role; you just build what you can afford and you're done with it.

They have been hit with a 7.0 Richter earth quake; even the U.N. and government buildings were floored. Sometimes you just don't have anyone to blame and this is one of those times.

"you just build what you can afford and you're done with it"

So if you can't afford a 2 story townhouse with earthquake and hurricane proofing you build a one-story that does have proofing and live in 2 rooms instead of 4 but have 2 rooms that are likely to stay standing. If you go for the 4 rooms then the consequences are yours to live with.

There are provisos, if earthquakes and hurricanes haven't ever happened where you live for example.

This sounds incredibly harsh and I, like most, would probably go with the group and build whatever anyone else was building assuming the worst wouldn't happen to me.

God have mercy.

>>I don't think the Haitians have that sense of 1st World, consumer rights, entitled mindset.

If you want to see something fun regarding this type of mindset, go check Sweden in Malthus' book on population (added in some later edition).

Sweden is today the poster child of the cradle-to-grave nanny state. For good and bad.

Malthus wrote about how self sufficient the Swedes were, compared to the rest of Europe, not blaming and demanding help from the state/nobility... :-)

I may be wrong, and would appreciate anybody from a third world country educating me, but I don't believe that building code standards are typically on top of the list of properties by which the citizens of those third world companies evaluate their government.

Civil Order, Access to Water, Food, Jobs, lack of corruption are probably much, much higher on their minds than "Are proper seismic standards being enforced."

I don't suspect the Haitians will be hating their government because earthquake resistance wasn't built into their building code.

I grew up in Brazil 20 years ago, when the economy was pretty bleak (at one point my allowance was worth half as much after a week or so due to hyperinflation). I'd move Jobs to #2 (money buys water and food) and replace Civil Order by the more general Security.

If anything, non-wealthy people in a place like Brazil (roughly 95% of the population) probably resent any attempt at building code enforcement by their government as merely another pretense to receive bribes. As much as we complain about politics in the US, rest assured that politicians and thus governments in the less human-capital dependent parts of the world are orders of magnitude worst.

I also lack this elusive "Third World Perspective" but considering the alarming regularity with which earthquakes shuffle several hundred thousands of their friends, family and neighbours off this mortal coil, perhaps those citizens should, in fact, start encouraging their governments to make building codes and disaster preparation more of a priority.

Your "perhaps they should" reasoning verges a bit into "no bread? let them eat cake" territory.

You can't make buildings safer by decree. It takes resources. Haiti is the poorest country in this hemisphere, by far. (The next poorest countries, Guyana or Nicaragua, are each twice as productive by per capita GDP.)

Even with an accurate idea of the chances (but not certainty) of such a major earthquake, the people and government could quite rationally have decided other more pressing needs deserved all of their meager expenditures.

I'm not sure that you quite understand how poverty works. There are no resources in Haiti, not even arable land. No human capital, nothing to trade. Even if it were possible to build earthquake-resistant buildings, without engineers, out of mud, they couldn't--because the mud was literally all they had to eat:


You're over egging it a little - if they didn't even have building materials to try and eat ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geophagy ) then they wouldn't have buildings that could fall on them.

A mud hut may fall down in an earthquake or blow away in a hurricane but is less likely to kill you when it falls over then a brick or concrete building.

Isn't this more about living within the societal means than simply about poverty: If where I live all cars crash or blow up because we lack resources to produce quality cars then one must accept a bicycle or horse and cart for family transport or suffer the consequences, no?

In a third world country you do not build with what you should build with, you build with what you have, and in any way that it will hold out the elements.

Building codes do not enter in to the equation.

I think you should question the strength of your analysis when you appear to be comparing Haiti to not just a First world country, but a G-7 Nation.

"Let me tell you what would happen to the mayor of a Japanese town if he let this happen and then just shrugged his shoulders and claimed there was "no-one to blame". "

So which way does the causality flow? Do those Japanese citizens have high expectations because they are from a G7 nation? Or did Japan get to be a G7 nation because of the fact its residents have high expectations?

Anyway, Japan just sprang to mind as a country with lots of earthquakes, it was not central to my thesis. Feel free to substitute the name of any well-run country in an earthquake zone.

So which way does the causality flow?

You seem to think that the answer is obvious. Everyone knows that Haiti has severe systemic problems, but it's just not clear what can be done about it in a self-sustaining way.

.. which is exactly my original point, restated. So the "severe systemic problems" are to blame, then. But there is blame, there is cause, it's not just some unavoidable random thing.

Look, one last time. Mahmud was saying that no-one's to blame, it was an act of god, can't be helped. I was trying to say that the systemic problems killed those people, poverty killed those people, bad government killed those people. That's what I think and that's all I was trying to say.

> Probably as many Somalis died as in Haiti (though not in one day) but we only have ourselves to blame, and each victim left a blood debt on his killer, which "must" be avenged (or it has been avenged, and now the victim's family are awaiting reprisals)

What are you talking about?

Mostly killings in Somalia are for revenge.

Revenge for what? For another killing?

This will strengthen their bond more than anything

The end of hate, not Haiti.

Did anyone else hear the NPR special on Haiti the day before the earthquake? They were saying how even though the country was extremely poor, investors were lining up to put in money to train workers and start companies, in part because of Clinton. They were saying how this was probably Haiti's last chance, and if anything else went wrong it would probably be the end of the country. Then this.

I can't find that anywhere on NPR's site. Got a link?

The story of hope for Haiti prior to the earthquake was on PBS NewsHour:


The concluding remark about 'climate refugees' is out of place in this otherwise very important discussion about failed states.

Climate change and its perceived influence on the mankind is a very controversial subject, and today most of people's suffering from poverty and misgovernment has nothing to do with it. Advancing your own pet theories using a real-life tragedy as a prop is a bad taste.

Agreed, and I quarreled with that statement briefly. What I think the author is trying to say is that soon, there will be climate refugees, and when that happens, we'll need to know what to do with them, and we can use this event as an example on how the world should handle it.

It wasn't necessary in the argument, and yes, he was pushing his theories, but it may not have been so completely insulting as: "climate changed caused an earthquake!"

Climate change and its perceived influence on the mankind is a very controversial subject, and today most of people's suffering from poverty and misgovernment has nothing to do with it.

The fact that a lot of people today suffer from poverty and misgovernment is indeed not entirely due to climate change (although there is dutch disease/resource curse: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resource_curse)

However it is not hard to realize that those suffering right now will suffer even more were climate change effects as severe as some scientist predict, is it?

He just had to bring up climate change at the end. Great way to get everyone to miss the point of your post.

Isn't climate change (as a consequence of man-made deforestation) a large part of the problems that face Haiti today?


The deforestation depicted in those photos is not the result of climate change, but of ill-advised logging activity.

GP said deforestation causing climate change, not deforestation caused by climate change.

Yes, I do. What's that got to do with it? My point is that humans can do serious damage to both their own environment and their means for survival, be it on a world or island scale.

There's no need to be snide about it.

Sorry, that was not my intent. I'll edit.

What's wrong with that? (Although I fail to see which island nation will need to be rescued next - actually most likely next humanitarian catastrophe of comparable scale is Bangladesh, in my opinion)

Does the Dominican Republic want Haiti? I don't think so considering how hard they are on Haitians who try to go to the DR part of the island.

Will the USA take on Haiti and make it a second Puerto Rico? I don't think so; for one, it would be expensive; two, all the Haitians would move to the USA as soon as they could; and there are probably other reasons as well.

So my analysis shows that Haiti will remain a barely functioning country as it was before and it will not "end". After all, Bangladesh has it bad every year due to the extensive flooding and naturally occurring arsenic in the groundwater; but they still exist.

Unfortunately, the other two recent American protectorates, Iraq and Afghanistan, have had mixed results. Iraq seems to be doing better because it had pre-existing infrastructure. Afghanistan might be a better analogy. At least it's geographically far smaller, and easy to support from the continental US.

There are currently several thousand US troops in Haiti performing aid activities; I would bet that we could get a UN mandate if so desired.

Puerto Rico was invaded by the United States. Haiti has great sadness in it's history. A large portion of their population is > 19 yrs old. There's a well known problem of child sex slaves in Haiti.

I think you mean <.

Historically disasters (and wars) have the opposite effect.

In the short term it's terrible, but long term a disaster usually spurs rebuilding and economic activity that results in a better situation than what was there before.

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake suggests otherwise. If the disaster is big enough it can wipe out a country.

The problem with using that model is that it assumes that once the war/disaster ends, there is a reasonable amount of time (10-15 years) in which the rebuilding can take hold and the economy can develop.

Haiti gets a significant natural disaster every three to four years - generally hurricanes and floods, but in this case, an earthquake. So every time they start to rebuild, they get hit again and it all gets undone.

Somalia is a rather compelling, and modern, example of a sovereign nation damaged beyond recovery by war. Rebuilding might occur on such a scale if the country had recently sustained such economic capacity sometime in the past. Haiti sadly has not, and its gov't even before the earthquake would not have been capable of stewarding any such renaissance.

In Europe, maybe. Where there was - even after the devastation of the second world war - still enough infrastructure left to rebuild. Where both the Soviet Union and the US wanted to win over allies becasue Europe hat just become a cold war front.

Pretty ridiculous statement in my opinion.

Life goes on, disaster or not.

There's supposedly always better situation in the future, it is pretty dubious to claim that wars and cataclysms accelerate long term development.

It's Mancur Olson's "Institutional Sclerosis" growth theory. He claimed to have shown that growth rates increase after a large shock to the existing order. His explanation for this is that institutions tend to be corrupted by special interests over time, feeding on the wealth of society. Shocks give people a chance to start afresh.

Doesn't that mean that winning side of military conflict gets even more corrupt afterwards?

He does claim to show that the losing side in several conflicts experienced higher growth rates after wars than would be expected from historical data (the American south after the civil war, Japan after WWII, etc.). Critics point to counter-examples, but as far as I know it's considered a reasonable (though not air-tight) theory.

It depends where you're talking about. In an area reasonably prepared for disasters, they actually do bring about increased prosperity -- Florida has periodic construction booms after hurricanes, and a majority are insured, so financial losses are constrained to the big insurance companies.

On the other hand, even in a developed nation, a major disaster can end the life of an area -- New Orleans is perhaps two-thirds of its former size and looks unlikely to grow.

In this case of Haiti, a steady and dedicated stream of aid could help rebuild the country, but history has shown that the international community's attention to the desperate plight of that nation has always been short-lived.

Sadly, I fear it will be worse than before, and remain so.

There's supposedly always better situation in the future, it is pretty dubious to claim that wars and cataclysms accelerate long term development.

It depends on what you mean. Wars have historically accelerated technology development, at least in the short term.

If you mean development more generally, then no probably not. The civilian technology would eventually get developped, if more slowly without the major push of a war. In the process, people and resources are destroyed.

Perhaps it's like accelerating your car. You gain more speed faster at the expense of efficiency.

I think that's a pretty good analogy.

Of course I mean human development.

Tech development is self accelerating (with main constraint being human developers, who's numbers wars and catastrophes reduce, btw).

Conflicts provide some bump, but I would say it's pretty insignificant in the large scheme of things.

I didn't say development. I said economic activity.

The end of conflating failed states, earthquakes, and AGW?

As far as failed states go, this could push Haiti from Haiti level to maybe even Somalia level. So I have to wonder what the repercussions of this could be. Somalia is a "safe" distance away from most of the rich and powerful countries--it's kind of a distant problem that Somalia has no government and even the piracy is kept to a sustainable level. Haiti's a lot closer to home. The US was pushed to action in Haiti in the 1990's, and chances are we'll have to do so again.

The Somali have customary laws which allow them to operate and grow their economy despite political chaos.

However, it would seem to me that that Haitians have no common law system or a customary kind which would permit the growth of an informal economy.

That's just offensive to Haitians and downright wrong. Somali traditions are the #1 cause of our strife; tribalism. We don't have any "laws", neither written nor verbal. It's all tribal handshakes and the whims of whoever is in charge.

If you're referring to Islam, well, that hasn't saved us, or the Iraqis, or Afghanis .. come to think of it, maybe they're better off without a prominent political religious establishment there. Where there is a will for violence and anarchy, the dominant or pre-existing "laws" only become pretexts, never deterrents, or they become marginalized by "circumstances". You have never seen evil until you have seen religion under the Marshall law of the religious, curbed to the side temporarily, until the faithful reach a given objective, promising to resume their piety later when it's more convenient. (a bit meta here, but I am thinking more of Communism than Abrahimic faiths.)

Haiti is from the exact same Moor embryo that gave birth to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Suriname, and the two Guyanas. Sure, they might not become a world-class economy any time soon, but nationhood is within their collective conscious. Never underestimate the will of a regional minority to rise up: francophone Haitians are in the middle of Spanish and English Caribbean. Give them sometime, they will be back up better and stronger.

I have no interests in "nationhood" and "collective consciousness", or "political will".

I am an individualist anarchist, and is naturally drawn to non-statist paradigm of organization and especially evidence for or against possible non-statist systems.

In any case, your opinion is highly valuable. I now have more information regarding what Somalian think of the situation and society in Somalia, which is often mentioned as a case of real world anarchy.

If there is no law system, then there's no anarchy, and thus only chaos. I found that hard to believe when I hear reports of rising standard of living in Somalia, as well capital investment, among other things.

I was only expressing my belief that there seem to be no alternative system of organization in Haiti would be comparable to Somalia's, thus no hope.

EDIT: this is not to say that there are no civil strides. It would seem to me that foreign interferences from other countries destroy possibilities of peace in the region.

Older systems built on trust and faith are very strong for community growth unlike what the organized economies & modern world claims. But I wonder how the system would behave under the severe destruction and distress. More so in the wake of external help pouring in and along with it bringing a false notion that Haiti need to rebuild in a certain way of their notion.

It might so happen that it would be torn apart between its own beliefs and what they are made to believe now more than ever.

> Where there is a will for violence and anarchy, the dominant or pre-existing "laws" only become pretexts, never deterrents, or they become marginalized by "circumstances".

That's probably the most astute observation I've heard this week.


I'm not sure what the point of these facts are. All you've done is state some information about Indonesia prefaced with a list of resources that Haiti has.

Are you claiming that Haiti won't fall apart due to their natural resources or are you claiming that Haiti will fall apart due to substance abuse centered around harvesting their natural resources? How are these related to this article or the disaster itself?

Given the fact that even before the quake, Haiti was a hotbed of gang activity, and now that many more of its criminals have escaped from prison, I can't help but worry that all of this aid money being handed over is going to ultimately fall into the wrong hands.

What I haven't seen explained is what exactly needs to be rebuilt? If someone has nothing, and there is an earthquake, exactly how does billions of dollars restore nothing?

Or because of this earthquake the world should build their infrastructure for free?

Hospitals, prisons, drinking water distribution, sewage, housing, electricity, police stations, firefighting capability. Is this a trick question?

Haiti didn't have nothing; it had a very crappy version of most things.

Charge Haiti whatever you'd like to build a basic survivable level of civilization. They'll never pay, but that doesn't matter. The alternative is Somalia in the Carribean.

I think it is a reasonable question. There are plenty of places without drinking water and sewage infrastructure of any real note. Why then does this earthquake mean that we should fix Haiti's water/sewage. Why not fix Somalia's instead?

Given the comments about Haiti's resources it seems it should be quite rich monetarily, certainly enough to pay for the rapid construction of Hospitals and the like. Yes, we'd want to help with skilled workers if sufficient don't exist locally for the timescales sought.

I don't think (hope) that the parent is saying we shouldn't help Haiti, just asking why only help them or help them in preference to others that are suffering as much.

Well, the point is that we can't have the attitude that we help everyone or we help no one. In the case of Somalia, there is political turmoil there that could (hopefully) be avoided in Haiti if we help sooner than later.

The quick answer to "why not fix Somalia" is "we tried, and they ended up shooting at us, so we left".

Oddly enough, we tried fixing Haiti a few times, too. It's not very successful, but they don't seem to shoot at us quite so much.

Haiti is not yet Somalia. By the '90s, purely humanitarian intervention in Somalia was untenable.

FWIW I was defending the asking of the question, questions are good, not for lack of an answer which would have been a mix of those answers here for sure.



Most pictures show the human suffering, but there are a few that show the destruction to infrastructure. I wouldn't say "nothing" is the right word for what Haiti had, but it's a good description of what's left.

Perhaps it's (finally) time to see the OPEC and other resource-rich countries step up and rebuild Haiti?

Why OPEC countries? These are oil producing countries, but very few of them belong to the rich countries in the world. I think that perhaps the richest countries in the world should help rebuild the devastation of one of the poorest countries in the world.

I think he meant OECD countries.

OPEC and other resource-rich countries

I think he meant what he typed. There's plenty of OECD countries without significant natural resources.

This earthquake can be noting but good for Haiti. People saw and heard there were problems and poverty here, but did nothing. Now due to the earthquake, people see and and millions of dollars are pouring and and will continue too. It is going to spur growth and economic activity. like ars said, bad initially, but great in the long run.

nothing but good? seriously?

This MAY end up being good the economy of Haiti in the long run, but it is a huge tragedy in a human scale.

Also, remember that for it to help their economy, that humanitarian aid has to stick around for the rebuilding. If everyone makes a huge push to help right now, but then stops as soon as all the bodies are collected, it will not help.

I seriously doubt aid will continue. It's a passing fad in a month or so we'll have another concern.

Broken window fallacy

This does not apply in this case because it is bringing in resources from outside of the country. The broken window fallacy only applies in a relatively closed system.

Of course, even if this DOES improve the economy (and I am not saying it will, just that it does not violate the broken window fallacy if it does) this was a horrible tragedy with an enormous deathtoll.

Agreed..it does not seem to be broken window fallacy....sloppy on my part.

I don't even understand the broken window fallacy. The broken window repair does seem to increase GDP, as long as G means Gross (Gross Domestic Product).

Of course the net gain is zero, but that's not what GDP mean, I think.

Some countries should be disbanded. Their citizens should be given a passport to the country of their choice along with a 1-way ticket and a small stipend.

All countries should be disbanded.

Thank you very much for your exceptionalism.

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