The quake: shaking our assumptions?

The quake: shaking our assumptions? January 15, 2010

David Brooks excellent article about this week’s quake in Haiti is a must read.  Whether you agree with his diagnosis or not, he shines a light on a problem that absolutely must be addressed:   There is no formulaic relationship between $$ aid and economic development/autonomy.  Haiti is the ongoing recipient of immense investments.  By some estimates, they have the highest per capita ration of NGO’s (nongovernmental organizations, like World Vision) in the world.  In spite of this, Haiti has remained locked in poverty, and it is this poverty that prevents the kind of infrastructure (building codes, sewage systems, access to water, hospitals, schools) from developing.  What do I mean?

  • The government is not able to provide the resources to educate the nation’s next generation.
  • The unemployment rate is over 80%.
  • More than half of Haitians live on less than a dollar a day.
  • There are few paved roads, an inadequate supply of potable water, minimal utilities, and depleted forests.
  • About 60% of the population lives in abject poverty.
  • Less than 20% of Haitians age 15 and over can read and write.
  • Fewer than 75% of children attend school.
  • 40% of the Haitian population does not have access to primary health care.
  • The United Nations estimates 6% of Haitians are infected with HIV/AIDS. The highest rate in the Western Hemisphere. An estimated 30,000 people die of AIDS every year.
  • One in twenty Haitians is infected with HIV/AIDS and there are over 150,000 AIDS orphans.
  • When things begin to shake, the underlying social and economic pathologies are revealed, and the devastation is exponentially greater than would be the case, were there adequate infrastructure present.

    So why is it that infrastructure doesn’t develop?  And how can we, who are opening our wallets, invest our dollars in the best way to assure that we not only triage the damage, bury the bodies, and provide acute care to those who need it now, but also begin addressing the systemic issues that have kept Haiti stuck for so long?

    Brooks declares that beginning with the assumptions that all cultures and beliefs are morally equal is the height of folly.  Ideas have consequences, and the tragedy of Haiti isn’t just that there’s poverty, it’s that the poverty is interwoven with deeply held beliefs and practices.  Until these beliefs change, the poverty will remain.  Brooks says it this way:

    In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism….It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

    When WWII ended, the German government sent hundreds of young people who’d been raised in the ethos of the Hitler Youth movement, to Capernwray in England for moral re-education.  International Needs is taking a similar strategy in Romania.  This, it seems, is the path in Haiti offering the greatest light.  But such a strategy swims against the popular current that eschews any challenge to another culture’s world view.

    We’ll take an offering at our church on January 24th for Haiti as part of the important effort to contribute to the acute crisis of the moment.  But it’s vital that all of us with means think long and hard, not about whether to invest, but about how to invest, so that our investment leads to changed lives and changed cultures, not just handouts.

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    • This may be of interest, a great friend of mine from Capernwray Hall 2001 moved to Port O Print this Summer, some observations of the things observed on his website are very interesting. (They are fine btw, they dug out of their apartment building but both survived Thank the Lord)

    • Andrew

      Your post reminds me of the book:

      Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo.

      In the end it comes back to aid being used to directly develop infrastructure so the people can use that to grow their economy rather than the aid being used to fund corruption or creating crutches that hinder goods and services developing locally.

    • DQ

      I think Brooks would have had a better argument if he had at least acknowledged that this is a catastrophic tragedy, regardless of culture, poverty, or economics. 50,000 men, women, and children are dead. Before he began talking about how to change Haiti’s infrastructure, he could have at least said, “My prayers and sympathy go out to all of the victims and their loved ones.” I get the sense that he doesn’t even view them as victims; they’ve somehow earned this because of poor cultural norms. He highlights China as an economic success story, but he must have already forgotten about the 68,000 who died in an earthquake there in 08. I thank God that China is prospering, but I also mourned the deaths of all who died in the earthquake in 08. So before we start talking about voodoo, shouldn’t we as Christians offer words of love, hope, and compassion? We can get back to economics and infrastructure next week.

    • So what do we think about Compassion and helping kids stay in school, become literate, and learn trades?
      Besides them we support other ministries in Africa that focus on getting and keeping kids in school. My sister-in-law runs a program in Uganda called Seeds of Growth, it’s for orphans, run by older orphans. Then there’s Village Schools International in Tanzania run by Steve Vinton. Both with a Christian basis, but focused on education.
      Personally I think this is the only way to help. Look at what happens when education goes wrong (Muslim schools teaching extremism anyone?) or when there simply isn’t any like is the case in Haiti. Education is a powerful tool even though it takes long term commitment. It’s changing the future generations not just throwing money at the current problems that won’t help them next year or 5 years down the road.

    • graham

      I don’t see how it is less compassionate to speak to the roots of a problem, this week or next. The catastrophe is pretty self evident and widespread compassion for the situation is not lacking. I have no problem reading that article without assuming he is heartless and only cares about his own ideas. In fact, I give him the benefit of the doubt and say that knowing the history of Haiti might possibly produce a more compassionate response than the average person (but I can’t substantiate that so I’ll stop there).
      He is correct on many levels and I’m glad this story is out there for the world to read while the world is watching. I wonder if you would have evaluated his comments differently if he was a dark skinned Hatian scholar? If so, it would only go to substantiate his Fourth point. The Dominican Republic had this forced paternalism for nearly a century… unfortunately it was through two ruthless dictators who happened to get a few things right amidst a multitude of terrible sins… the good that was done could very well have been the bi-product of some other selfish motive. Chapter 11 in Jared Diamonds book Collapse has a great compare and contrast article about this very issue.

      Reading it years ago and then re-reading it last night only makes this catastrophe feel worse. Coulda woulda shoulda I guess. My heart breaks upon hearing the images and the stories, and it is almost unbearable to see the wounded, orphaned children with blank, shocked faces. Yes, we shall offer our love, hope and compassion… but truth should remain in our hearts and minds as we do so.

    • Richard,

      I have to say I was pretty disappointed by this post. I have several friends who speak highly of you and many of your other blog posts point to someone who looks at both sides of an issue before you make up your mind and share it with the world. But in the this case it appears you’ve only read one sub-par article by a non-expert in the field of development studies and based most of your understanding of Haiti and commentary on it.

      Brooks sits in an office in NYC and writes about people he has never met, places he has never been to, and something (development economics) he knows little about it. Yet he feels comfortable saying things like: “There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.” But he offers nothing of substance to back this up, even something anecdotal would have been nice. His statements are without merit at best, and slanderous at worst.

      There has been some really good commentary by development economists and professions* who are involved in working with people in developing counties on a daily basis. Brooks quotes from Bill Easterly’s new book (Easterly is a co-editor), and on Easterly’s blog, Easterly’s co-blogger and development economist states: “Brooks’ list of rejected explanations include slavery and colonial history, bad government and corruption, foreign invasions, geography and climate. I wonder what others who have spent time studying, living or working in Haiti think of the relative weight of these explanatory variables.” (Notice she says ‘studying, living or working’)

      Tyler Cowen, economist from GMU, who blogs at Marginal Revolution, came up with a list of reasons why Haiti is poor, everything from crippling colonial debt to poor governance to culture and then states: “Overall I don’t find this set of possible factors very satisfactory. Is it asking too much to wish for an economics profession that is obsessed with such a question?” Again the professionals don’t know so why should we think David Brooks does?

      Culture is important, but it is not the whole story. Any comparisons involving culture (as well as many other things) are almost always comparisons between apples and oranges, not apples and apples (comparisons of the DR included). It is really hard to isolate one factor from another. Brooks was right, we we still have a lot to learn about ending poverty.

      It’s easy as Christians to sit back with smug smiles on our faces and read Brooks’ article and say ‘see, this is what happens when you have a bad culture’. When bad things happen, Christians love to to point to perceived personal faults in others because it makes us feel better about ourselves because we can say ‘well I must be doing something right!’. But this is silly and Jesus cautioned against it many times in. (While this segment of the Christian population is shrinking–thank God!–it still holds sway over a large chunk of our collective sub-conscience).

      But you are right about your prescription for how to give. Bethany’s donation should be used to make a long term impact in Haiti. You should pick an organization that has a long history of working WITH the Haitian people and has a vision for long term sustainable change. I would caution against this ‘paternalism’ idea. What Haitians don’t need is some benevolent dictator–it is simply not sustainable! While it might seem like a way to make a quick impact, in the long run Haitians need development that brings them into the process, empowers them, and builds up their capacity to address their own needs.

      *I don’t know how to link, but there is so much written by economists and development professionals and professors who deal with these issues on a daily basis. See Easterly’s blog,, Chris Blattman, etc. These people have written and linked to numerous articles and papers. Again there is a written about the Haitian Earthquake that is of scholarly substance and insight, but Brooks’ article is not one of them.

    • Heather

      Hi, Pastor Richard. I wasn’t sure where to post this, but I go to Bethany and have some good friends who are missionaries in Haiti. My friend Corrigan, has an interesting perspective having lived there (in the trenches) for 2 years or so. At the bottom of his latest post it shares some ways he thought would be most beneficial to helping the people there. He suggests his ministry, however suggests other places to target giving that he sees as being most benefical. I wanted to submit this to you, in hopes it might somehow be helpful as you guys prayerfully consider where to give.

    • Heather

      oops. Here’s the website!

    • DQ

      Hello Graham—
      I guess we disagree on the roots of the problem. I think the problem had to do with a 7.0 earthquake, not Haitian culture. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think their practice of voodoo caused the earthquake. So if you want to get to the true root of the problem you should consult your local seismologist, not David Brooks.

      My point was to simply say that I find it disrespectful to pontificate about the problems of Haitian culture before we even know the total body count. Shouldn’t we at least wait until the bodies get cold before we start talking their “progress-resistant cultural influences?” There is a time for everything and I think this is a time to mourn.

      Would I have evaluated his comments differently if he was a dark skinned Haitian? Perhaps. In fact, I’m sure I would (even if he were a white skinned Haitian). Send me a link to comments made by Haitian scholars and I will let you know what I think. However, my guess is that they are all too busy digging their loved ones out of rubble to write articles about “progress-resistant cultural influences.” That’s the job for white affluent pundits.

    • Lana

      Thanks for leading us in prayer for Haiti. It was encouraging to see such a pouring out of compassion for this nation. My friends from Multnomah Bible College, the McMartin’s are missionaries there. After Bethany’s corporate prayer it was encouraging to read the following update how God is working in Haiti:

      I’ll start with good news – we all need some of that!!! Jehu and boys are all alive. The house they are renting collapsed. Only Jehu and Inocin were inside – a miracle they got out alive. David Schmid, Bruce and I made our first trip off the campus yesterday. Jehu’s was our first stop. When I saw the boys all sitting there in the driveway, I lost it. Just a lot of pent-up emotions and I was so thankful to see them alive…especially after all we had just driven through. Their new building on the property outside of the city is still standing. The walls that were going up on the last floor fell, but the rest of the building seems solid. I was able to obtain 2 boxes of some aid food during the day, so we dropped this by for the boys on our way back home. Anyhow, praise God with us for this blessing of safety for Jehu and boys.

      Our goal in going off campus was to try and find medical supplies and to make contact with organizations/teams that could give us assistance up here. It was a long and tiring day, but we made some good contacts and did come back with some boxes of medical supplies. All we met said they had not seen any UN or US army troops out at all yet. We know aid has arrived here, but also realize that there is no structure/organization within the Haitian government to help get things mobilized. Today we have heard/seen many helicopters flying over so we believe things have begun to move.

      I came home very discouraged. The sites around town were just so devastating. Even though I already knew it, it became even more clear that this will not be an easy fix/repair and that life will become even harder in the days ahead. The stench of death was terrible.

      This morning we had a service here on campus in the yards. A time of singing and prayer and then Jacques Louis, a Seminary administrator and professor, brought a message from God’s Word. He challenged us to have the same attitude as David did towards God when he was in the midst of so many trials; to trust in God’s sovereign control and to not take revenge in our own hands; to let God give blessing in place of the hardships we are now facing in His own time. It was good to be together and to be encouraged from God’s Word. An opportunity was given at the end for those who wanted to put their trust in Jesus for salvation to come forward. About 15 boys and young men went forward. Seminary students, professors, and others talked/prayed with them individually after the service. Bruce came up to the house to get a bit of fuel and matches to burn the charms/fetishes of one young man. So, more good news: the addition of these men and boys to the family of God.

      Tremors continue – had at least 4 today – the last two I was told were 4.7 and 4.6. So the people continue to be fearful to return to any structure that is left of their home.

      We will be receiving a team of 4 men sent by CrossWorld this week. Two of the men are from Crisis Consulting International. They are coming to help us make a plan and to give us some training in what we’re doing here.

      We have been so encouraged and ministered to by your emails sharing your prayers of scripture for us, verses to uplift us, your love and concern, and information from there to help us get connected with what’s going on here and some aid. Thank you all.

      I know this is long, but there is one more thing I have to share. This morning I received some news – it was a report on a press conference of the President of Senegal. This is a short version of what it said: SENEGAL’S president on Sunday called for Africa to make room for victims of Haiti’s earthquake to restart their lives on the continent from where their ancestors were snatched as slaves. His spokesman Mamadou Bamba Ndiaye gave further details of the proposals. ‘If it is just a few people, we will offer them a roof and a patch of land; if they come in large numbers, we will give them a whole region.’

      Does man every know or understand the plans of God?! What if this is his way to get 100’s of Haitian believers to this country and continent? We want to follow up on this so pray that God will continue to give direction and open doors.

      Our love to you all. We continue to need your prayers,

      Cindy for Bruce too

    • Dan

      Another excellent article, with a much wiser take on things than Pat Robertson:

    • Although I respect and admire David Brooks I have to strongly disagree with his diagnosis of Haitian culture and its correlation to the country’s poverty. For another opinion, please read Nicholas Kristof’s article published today, also in the NY Times:

    • raincitypastor

      Great article Lindsay, and thanks for referencing it. I don’t see it as very contradictory though, to Brook’s thesis, which is that there are big issues that need addressing is Haiti is to move beyond systemic poverty. Am I missing something?

    • Denver Todd

      Probably the best investment America could make in Haiti would be to overthrow its government.