Colorful descriptions of Haiti

My Facebook friends have their panties in a twist because President Trump purportedly referred to some countries where people want to emigrate to the U.S. as “shitholes.” (e.g., see “Trump Alarms Lawmakers With Disparaging Words for Haiti and Africa” from the nytimes) The only righteous attitude toward these countries is that they are wonderful places full of culture, orderly Swiss-style cities and villages, and economic opportunity. It is just that the people who live there would rather be in Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, or Buffalo.

Their horror reminded me of the experience of a CBS News crew in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. A former instructor at our flight school was flying a Pilatus PC-12 for a rich guy and the owner said “go down to Haiti and fly supplies around.” He was indifferent to whether the plane was flying out of Teterboro or Port-au-Prince so he packed his bag, stopped for fuel in Fort Pierce, Florida, and kept going to Hispaniola. After a week or so, Dan Rather hopped on the plane so as to be on the ground when the food and water were delivered to grateful quake victims. The crew decided to gather some B-roll from the pilot, assuming that he was there in Haiti because of his profound commitment to humanitarianism. Here’s how the conversation went…

  • CBS: What do you think the effect of your work here will be?
  • Pilot: Well, Haiti was a shithole before this earthquake and I’m sure that it will be a shithole after all of these relief workers have packed up and gone home.

Somehow I don’t think that this heartwarming footage was ever aired…

[Separately, when are the folks who criticize Trump for saying that Norway is nicer than Haiti going to spend their vacation time and money in Haiti? Or, better yet, become rich by setting up a vacation resort in Haiti?]


Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Haiti After the Earthquake

I’m just about done listening to Haiti After the Earthquake as a book on tape. One thing that Americans could take away from this book is how much we over-invest in central government and housing. As noted in my previous posting, the earthquake had little long-term effect on Haiti’s GDP despite the fact that Haiti’s central government was mostly destroyed (ministry buildings in the capital city flattened; civil servants killed while at their desks) and approximately 1.5 million were rendered homeless. What have Americans invested in during the last few decades? A bigger central government (state governments count too, since a lot of states are roughly comparable to Haiti in population (10 million)) and fancy houses. Haiti’s GDP didn’t shrink; should we be surprised that the US GDP is growing only slowly?

Farmer is not a believer in the old saying “If the government is big enough to give you everything you want, it is big enough to take away everything you have.” He wants governments in rich countries all over the world to raise taxes so that more money can be given to Haiti’s government (not spent directly by NGOs in the country). At the same time he decries traditional Big Government policies such as agricultural subsidies that render Haitian agriculture uncompetitive (thus requiring more people in Haiti to live on hand-outs from the countries that are providing hand-outs to their domestic farmers). Farmer doesn’t explain how governments can be as big as he wants them to be and at the same time immune from lobbying by farmers and other competing domestic groups looking for hand-outs. The U.S. provides a good example here. When Congress raised taxes on American workers and investors, it spent the money to subsidize the U.S. health care industry (“Obamacare”) rather than to help poor people around the world get better health care, clean water, etc.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

How is Haiti doing?

I haven’t thought too much about Haiti since a 2010 trip down toward the earthquake-stricken zone. How is the country doing? I’m halfway through Haiti After the Earthquake by Paul Farmer, one of Boston’s local heroes.

So far (in the book), the news doesn’t seem to be good. Farmer describes his hostility toward companies that ran factories there in the 1980s and paid what he considered to be unfairly low wages. He had similar complaints about the tourism industry. By the time of the quake, the factories had moved to Asia and tourism had shut down, but no high-wage employers came in to replace these industries. Farmer also attributes Haiti’s poverty to “unfair trade practices” by the U.S. but doesn’t explain what these are (perhaps our tariffs on agricultural products and subsidies for domestic agriculture?).

Foreign aid doesn’t seem to work out that well for Haiti. Farmer describes food aid programs that devastate the local agricultural economy, a U.N. group that keeps massive shipping containers on a hillside before a pre-quake hurricane (they wash into a river, smash into a bridge, and bring down the bridge, thus cutting off a heavily populated portion of the country), and a U.N. group that brings cholera to Haiti. Even when foreigners show up to do something useful they tend to displace Haitians. Farmer describes American, European, and Israeli medical personnel showing up to work in Haitian hospitals and clinics after the quake. For every foreigner who shows up, a Haitian employee leaves to check up on/assist his or her family. Farmer describes the earthquake as having been devastating to Haiti’s central government, with most of their ministry buildings flattened. He complains that foreign aid goes to non-governmental organizations and/or is directly spent by foreign governments (e.g., the U.S. government paying its own military personnel) rather than being funneled through the Haitian government.

The CIA Factbook shows Haiti currently growing at a healthy 3.4 percent real rate (well above the population growth rate of 1.1 percent). Global Finance says that Haiti suffered a 5.5 percent reduction in GDP during 2010 but made it all back up in 2011. The Economist in 2013 said that things weren’t going as well as hoped. By the numbers it looks as though the earthquake resulted in two lost years of growth, which of course is bad but not nearly as bad as the number of years of growth lost in various countries that have had financial meltdowns.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog