After Billions of Dollars in Aid, Little Progress in Haiti

Ninety-five percent of the debris from the Haitian earthquake one year ago hasn't been moved.

Billions of dollars later, with none other than Bill Clinton serving as the foreman for a massive international reconstruction effort, most of the country pretty much looks the way it did when dust and screams still filled the air. Except, of course, for all of the tent cities.

More than a million people remain homeless. The good news? The Red Cross is building 300 semi-permanent wood homes. That would be sufficient if they could each serve a family of 3,300 people, semi-permanently.

To get a sense of Haiti's dysfunction, Fox News reports that some 64 brand-new trucks donated after the earthquake by the United States to be used by aid organizations remain parked at the airport. Apparently nobody will pay the steep import tax on the vehicles, so they sit idle, overgrown with weeds.

It's sure as hell clear international aid has done nothing to make Haiti rich.

Even before the earthquake, Haiti was not only the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, it was one of the few nations in the world to get poorer over the last 50 years. And this is despite the fact it has had some 10,000 international aid organizations working there for decades.

One of Haiti's problems is that it has a culture of poverty. Some cultures add value, some don't. For instance, a low-skilled Mexican worker becomes 10 times more productive simply by crossing the border into the United States. It's not that there aren't entrepreneurs or hard workers in Haiti, but the system holds them down rather than unleashes them.

Most of the wealth of any society rests in what economists call "intangible capital"--the laws, knowledge and customs that define a society. Social planners love to invoke the Marshall Plan, whereby America helped rebuild Europe after World War II, as proof that foreign aid can create prosperity. What is left out of the discussion is that while Europe's bridges may have been smashed, its intangible capital remained relatively intact.

You can hardly say the same thing about Haiti, which has seen its storehouse of intangible capital devalued for generations. Many ambitious Haitians of means leave the country. Worse, those who stay home are thwarted when they try to break through the cycle of dependency created by indisputably well-meaning aid agencies.

In a reported essay for Slate, Maura R. O'Connor asks, "Does International Aid Keep Haiti Poor?" That's a tougher question than it sounds, but it's sure as hell clear international aid has done nothing to make Haiti rich.

O'Connor writes that Haitians increasingly see the foreign-aid industry as exactly that, an industry. "There is a vicious paradigm to it: If everything is OK, the NGO has no mission," Georges Sassine, the president of the Haitian Association of Industrialists, told Slate.

It is tempting to argue that benign neglect alone is the answer. But benign neglect amidst such chaos, including a cholera epidemic, probably wouldn't be all that benign.

Still, you have to ask: How many more decades of "help" making things worse do we need before it's time to throw up our hands?

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: UN Photo/Logan Abassi

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