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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Aid To Haiti

Maybe you saw it last week in the newspapers. Nicholas Kristof with the New York Times faced off against Jonah Goldberg with the Los Angeles Times. Their topic was aid to Haiti. Specifically, they were each addressing the question of whether aid to Haiti does the country any good.

Kristof took the position that foreign aid to Haiti is worthwhile. He suggested building garment factories and other specific solutions to provide jobs - and claimed that a few dozen of such initiatives would "be transformational."

Goldberg took the position that aid to Haiti has simply enabled Haitians to continue to be helpless. He suggested that we get them through this crisis, but then that we begin to apply a "tough love" stance to how we deal with Haiti.

Of course, each of these talented writers gave us incredible facts about the country of Haiti.

Goldberg started by reminding us that Haiti has been free ... and the poorest country in the western hemisphere for a very long time. He pointed out that, before the recent earthquake, more than 10,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGO) were already working in Haiti. The country also had about 10 times the level of foreign aid (from governments) as investment as any other country on earth. And still Haiti is one of the poorest nations on earth --- and it's people are among the most helpless people on earth. Mmmm.

Kristof of course argued in Haiti's defense, pointing out how they'd been victimized by the French (and other colonial influences). He says Haiti's biggest problem is that they decimated about 98% of their forests to pay debts to the French government when they gained their independence from France. He points out that the Haitian people are anything but helpless if they live anywhere besides Haiti.

It's true the Haiti had few natural resources to start with, and most of those have been squandered. But one can hardly use that as a never-ending excuse to remain trapped in poverty. After all, Japan, Switzerland and Singapore are also small countries with few natural resources. Each of them has been able to pull themselves out of poverty and become not only successful, but also very influential on the world scene.

There has long been an argument about Africa and our help there. The old adage of "giving a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" has been applied in almost every imaginable situation there. I've been personally involved in helping Africans and often been more than disappointed with the outcome. In other words, the results are less than satisfactory. I'm not sure I could argue that the efforts to help Africa have been damaging, but at the very least, I can see that they've had an enabling dimension to them.

It would be hard to imagine that continuous streams of foreign government and non-profit aid pouring into Haiti hasn't in some ways enabled Haiti to continue to perform poorly in education, commerce and even self governance. Suppose, for example, that the United States took over the government of Haiti and make it a U.S territory. Its government would be accountable to Washington. Plausible plans would be implemented for job training, tourism, health and safety, education, etc. Standards for buildings and infrastructure would be implemented.

I would be the last person to argue for the loss of anyone's freedom. But the practical side of me says that the quality of life would improve dramatically in Haiti if they'd let someone else run the country. The religious zealots are pointing to Haiti's religious heresy as deserving of God's punishment in this earthquake. But I wonder if perhaps taking their independence from France might not have been one of Haiti's earlier mistakes. After all, independence doesn't seem to have served them very well. And lest you think I'm a bigot, I've had a similar observation of most of the countries that separated from the British Empire. Most have not fared well on their own and would arguably have been better off under British rule.

Could this earthquake and its resulting impact not be used for the good ... to turn the mindset among the Haitian people around? If ever there was an argument for a paradigm shift being needed, it is probably in Haiti. The question is whether or not this human tragedy of such immense proportions will be able to deliver that paradigm shift in the minds of the Haitian people and in the fabric of their culture.

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