Monday, January 18, 2010


More obnoxious even than Pat Robertson's attribution of the Haiti earthquake to their alleged devil worship is David Brooks' NYT article arguing, essentially, that Haiti's poverty is its own fault and aid is useless. More obnoxious because Brooks is supposed to be an "intellectual" writing in the pages of a respected newspaper.

Matt Taibbi, in his usual style, gives Brooks the treatment he deserves. But Taibbi, in turn, fails to tell us the real reasons Haiti is poor.

Meanwhile, they need our help...


wildflower seed said...

Robertson is a freak, but one expected less ignorance from Brooks. Meanwhile, did you hear the big sigh of relief from the bankers last week, when Haiti knocked the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings off the front pages and evening news broadcasts? Sheesh.

km said...

Nice timing, NYT!

gaddeswarup said...

There is a discussion in Jarred Diamond's Collapse about deforestation etc. I think that Haiti isone first colonial countries which fought for independence (even supplied soldiers to Simon Bolivar) and paid heavy compensation to France ( I think)for France's losses. Currently there seems to be a lot of difference in the US sugar quotas between Haiti andDom. Rep. It could be a combination of reasons. When Aristidescame to power therewas somw hope of recovery but it did not happen. I really do not know but it isan interesting case to think about.

Anonymous said...

The timing is completely off, but the contents of Brooks' column are worth thinking about. Taibbi's so called deconstructing of Brooks' column is, at best, absolutely juvenile.

One of the comments ('third party') on Taibbi's post sums it up for me:
"Brooks adds an important consideration to what is a very crowded conversation about Haiti right now: that as we go forward – not just in the following months, but in the years ahead – we need to be candid about the limits and lessons of foreign aid. It would have been nice if you directed your response to that, rather than a childish swipe at Brooks."

Rahul Siddharthan said...

WS - that and the Massachusetts election (which has knocked Haiti off the news, for now).

gaddeswarup - yes, Haiti has a very interesting history and has been victimised both by France (which demanded a ruinous compensation, $21 billion in today's money and more than France's GDP at the time) for independence, and by the US, which repeatedly propped up dictators and overthrew popular governments (as they did throughout Latin America).

anonymous -- Haiti is poor and ill-governed, but the question is why? The answer is the US (and, earlier, France). It is not what Brooks suggests, that Haitians are intrinsically lazy / stupid / superstitious / corrupt / whatever.

Rahul Basu said...

Rahul: I think Brooks' timing is awful and the way its come out almost sounds as if the Haitians are congenitally lazy and stupid.
But I doubt that even Brooks would imply something like that and what he says has a grain of truth, and so I believe Taibbi's cribs this time are a bit knee-jerk.

Before I am accused also of racism let me take the example of my own country rather than Haiti. The Latur and Bhuj earthquakes killed thousands. In Latur, the mud and brick houses literally fell on top of sleeping families. In Gujarat even in places like the capital Ahmedabad, walls crashed in pucca houses and apartment complexes trapping people beneath. Why? Because in the rush towards development, building codes regarding earthquake resistance were blithely ignored and the official bodies conveniently looked the other way.

Let's take other examples. Even major metros like Mumbai and Chennai flood in the monsoons. Occasionally there are severe disasters like the one in 2005 in Mumbai. Of course even in the worst cases the numbers of dead people are orders of magnitude less than those in Haiti. However people do die sometimes of drowning sometimes of electrocution when they don't have to.

What is common in all this is poor quality of construction (whether of buildings or of storm water drains) or total lack of proper infrastructure. We pay little heed to safety measures -- they are often considered an unnecessary luxury. Coupled to that is a corrupt system that siphons of funds that should rightly have gone to better infrastructural development.

We cannot help natural disasters but we can easily protect our people better than we do. California and Japan regularly face severe earthquakes but casualties in India of similar events are far far higher. This is a well documented and well discussed fact and the reasons, as I argue above are not far to seek. (It cannot be all explained by over-population). Regrettably most of it has to do with the venal attitudes of those who are meant to uphold rules and regulations.

And unlike Haiti, we cannot even use the United States as the favourite whipping boy for this. Every day we are told that we are an economic power which will take on the Western developed nations, but we seem to have little interest in protecting our citizens from natural calamities.

So before rushing to condemn Brooks, a little introspection is perhaps in order at least by us here, because uncannily it seems to be relevant to us too. After all, unlike Haiti we are neither that poor nor that ill-governed and yet...

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Rahul: I fully agree about India. The difference is that we have been independent for over 62 years, so the "blame the British" excuse is well past its expiry date as far as corruption and poor governance are concerned. (With poverty, there is still considerable truth in it: we could have made much better progress in poverty, but we have to undo the effect of three centuries of looting.)

Haiti has effectively never been left alone to develop (see also the link in my newer post). So it is impossible to say whether it could have managed better on its own, because it never had a chance.

Back to India: I think the root cause of our problems is bureaucracy and corruption, and those can be traced to Nehru's Soviet-inspired policies. We have neither effective governance nor effective law enforcement. Your recent links on Jyoti Basu really refer to all of India and all our leaders (with rare exceptions like Rajaji). The only difference is in timing: while India (under Rajiv Gandhi, and later Narasimha Rao / Manmohan Singh) was slowly emerging from that sort of mindset, Jyoti Basu was digging deeper (and digging his state deeper) into it.

Rahul Basu said...

Rahul: Yes I agree we cannot really say how well Haiti would have managed on its own given all the interference it has faced from the 'big boys'. In that sense, if anything , we have even less of an excuse.

But I wouldn't blame Nehruvian socialism for this totally (we are now going far away from the Haiti issue). Nehru's idea (perhaps utopian) was that a Government was the best vehicle to bring prosperity to the masses since it was not motivated by the profit motive, unlike the corporations (we do see shades of that now in the US !!!). Also India was just coming out of the colonial experience of (to use your expression) looting and he was understandably queasy of allowing a free market economy with the experience of the East India Company fresh in his mind. In fact most Congress men shared his view except Rajaji. It's later experience that showed us how corruption, incompetence and lack of competition can dull the entrepreneurial spirit. So I have some sympathy with Nehru, even if his idealist socialist ideas proved to be wrong.

But all this is marginal to the topic of your post.