Haiti: Give Aid or Deal With the Roots of the Problem?

Rick Steves: On the question few people are asking about Haiti after the earthquake

02.08.10 | 3:57 PM ET

Graffito in Port-au-Prince, taken Jan. 27 (REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

On Conan O’Brien’s final “Tonight Show” last week, he said, “Don’t be cynical. Cynicism is my least favorite trait.” I don’t want to be cynical. It’s not constructive. But on that spectrum between frustrated and cynical, I’m not in a very good place right now.

Just hours before that show, the four big networks joined together to broadcast a telethon to raise emergency aid for Haiti. America cares. We’re coming to the rescue. When people are in need, it brings out the best in the American people—regardless of our politics, we are united in support. Locally, my church is collecting “health kits for Haiti.” There’s a button on its website to help raise money. I’m inspired by the outpouring of goodwill. It’s good and necessary and motivated by love.

But at the same time, I’m troubled that no one seems to be asking why Haiti is so wretchedly poor to begin with—so poor that even their presidential palace can be toppled by an earthquake. As soon as the passion of this moment fades, the U.S. government will continue contributing to repressive trade policies that keep places like Haiti impoverished. Am I the only one disillusioned, concerned that almost nobody—especially those in our media or government—is talking about this?

Charity is good. It helps people. It feels good. It’s easy to do, and easy to understand. But addressing the roots of structural poverty is the real challenge. A Toys for Tots-type organization collecting toys (“new and in their original packaging please”) brings cheer to poor kids who might not otherwise have a happy Christmas. And while caring people head to the mall with a longer shopping list, our society scuttles an opportunity to help those same families not to be impoverished by health care expenses. Again: simple charity ... structural poverty.

During tough economic times or when dealing with the human suffering caused by natural disasters at home or abroad, each of us is confronted with a personal choice. You can: ignore; respond; or ask why, learn, and act to address the root of problem. Most good people take door #2. It’s human nature.

Nobody wants to open door #3. But we must. For example, seismic safety is a luxury only the privileged can afford. While the numbers aren’t in yet on Haiti’s quake, in 2001 a similar quake hit El Salvador and left nearly a quarter of the country’s population (1.5 million people) homeless. (2001 was a momentous year for the U.S., but imagine a quarter of your country homeless.) An earthquake of the same magnitude hit my hometown that same year, and no one died. I was at work in our new-at-the-time building and remember riding it out as though I were on a hobby horse (suddenly thankful for the code requirements that made me spend extra for construction that could withstand such a quake). The best those living in a Haitian shantytown can afford for earthquake protection is to live in what’s called “miniskirt housing”—cinderblocks for the lower half of the wall, and light corrugated tin for the upper walls and roof. When a miniskirt house tumbles down, at least it won’t kill you.

We can blame Haiti’s squalor on voodoo, on its heritage of slavery, on corruption, on the fact that its main export is topsoil (in a treeless land, each rainstorm flushes precious soil into the sea), or on many other factors. But we must also look at American and European trade policies that help keep nations like Haiti underdeveloped—tariffs that help keep them “banana republics.”

A banana republic is a poor land whose economy is dominated by the export of its leading natural resource. It’s subjugated by First World trade policies that allow it to export raw materials but not finished products. Higher tariffs for processed goods make it nearly impossible to export anything but cheap raw materials to the already-developed world competitively. Put simply, Haiti can export raw sugar but not candy. Ghana can export cocoa but not chocolate bars. Honduras can export peanuts but not peanut butter. Compounding that are subsidies for American agricultural products. Haiti would love to compete fairly for the American market with its sugar, rice and textiles, but tariffs and subsidies created by our government (to protect you and me) make it impossible. In Haiti, you’ll see fields that once grew rice now left unplanted. And across the street, a shack sells rice grown in the U.S.

That is an example of structural poverty put upon countless millions of people, in part by the trade policies of the wealthy world. Sure, it may be good business for us in the short term. But having squalor south of our border may not be in even the greediest American’s self-interest in the long term.

The most widely used term for poor countries these days is “the Developing World.” But I find that label ironic, since so many First World economic policies systematically and actively keep places like Haiti underdeveloped. (The chapter on El Salvador in my “Travel as a Political Act” book explains this more thoroughly.)

OK, I guess I am cynical. (I think that feeling is stoked by the growing power of corporations to shape policies that impact real people—like the Haitians our hearts will go out to for the next week or so. Even before everyone was dug out of the rubble that was once Port-au-Prince, the U.S. Supreme Court gave American corporations the constitutional right to be protected as individuals. That means they have the right to buy our government in the name of “free speech.” I fear our “democracy” is fast becoming one with a government still “by, for, and of the people”—but via the corporations we own. And, as that happens, why would our government ever reconsider these trade policies?)

Give aid or deal with the roots of the problem? That’s the question. Mother Teresa inspired us to feed the poor. Like everyone else, I loved her. El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero asked what were the roots of his nation’s poverty. He was shot. Today, my pastor worked a slide show on Haiti into his sermon: a series of horrific scenes of squalor. The last frame read: “Haiti before the earthquake.”

On my last trip south of our border, I heard a local troubadour sing: “It’s not easy to see God in the orphan child who cleans the windshields at a traffic light ... but we must.”

So what do we do? I’m not sure. We can ask ourselves how costly it would be for the U.S. to allow free trade so poor countries can compete with us. We can learn more about these issues. And we can support Bread for the World—see www.bread.org—which lobbies courageously, effectively and against great odds for friendlier trade policies for people like the Haitians.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

10 Comments for Haiti: Give Aid or Deal With the Roots of the Problem?

Brian Hayashi 02.08.10 | 5:47 PM ET

Rick, very thoughtful article. After following some of the other large-scale disasters of recent years (the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia, and the earthquake that leveled Bam, Iran before that) American philanthropy continues to shine even when our own finances are suspect. It is as if the unbelievable sense of esprit de corps that inspired the survivors of the World Series earthquake in SF continues to live on in countless Americans, regardless of political affiliation, race or creed.

That being said - we live in an age of short attention spans. Much construction in Thailand, however well-intentioned, wasn’t completed for many reasons. Perhaps some were surprised by the rapid drop-off in funds, and perhaps the project managers overestimated goodwill and underestimated costs and complexity. What we do know is that while flash mobs generated a lot of money, there was a lot of waste: money generated immediately to fund immediate transportation was much more useful than efforts to collect clothing and supplies, where the costs of shipping outweighed actual utility. 

American journalism is terrific at breaking news and incredibly shoddy at investigative journalism, whether it is about the background of Iraqi WMD, AIG bonuses or why the Haitian government has been destitute for years before the quake. A few voices like Nick Kristof punctuate the awkward silence with reportage of what’s working and how to help, but voices such as his and yours are too few and far between.

Perhaps we need to imagine a crowdsourced Wikipedia of Hope, a nonpartisan assessment that ranks foreign governments with the same dispassionate authority a Lipper brings to the world of mutual funds. We don’t accept American charities whose operating costs are abused by their managers to fund island getaways. In this age of transparency, we need fewer panicked fire drills and more constant, gentle pressure that shine a bright light in the areas Americans don’t think of every day.

Anna 02.08.10 | 8:47 PM ET

Thank you for this article.  I would also be interested in learning more about what the effect of long term aid has been in Haiti.  Is there any evidence that the sort of aid we have been giving over the long term is actually making any difference, making things better, or could it even be making things worse?  I very much want to help and it is heart breaking to see these images of children on TV who are starving (I remember reading an article about Haiti about a year ago, how some were so hungry they were eating mudpies to keep their stomaches full).  But I want us to be smart about how we help, also.

Gary Arndt 02.08.10 | 9:06 PM ET

You are correct that opening trade is probably the biggest thing we can do to help, not only Haiti, but other poor countries around the world.

The problem is much larger than just corporations. There are powerful forces on the left and the right that work to keep such disastrous laws in place.

Organized labor is perhaps the most vocal and consistent force against free trade. Red state members of congress from farm districts have an incentive to keep farm subsidies in place that distort global commodity prices and hurt farmers in developing countries. Left wing activists decry the creation of manufacturing facilities in developing nations (aka sweatshops) even though every nation which has gone through the development cycle since WWII has gone through a sweatshop stage (Japan and South Korea for example). On the right you have pundits on Fox News fretting over illegal aliens and terrorists, advocating closing our borders to more trade and tourism. Europe is one of the biggest offenders with some of the most onerous farm subsidies in the world.

This is an odd political issue that has opponents and advocates on both sides of the isle. It will require a unique collation of people across the political spectrum to beat back the special interests that have an incentive to keep the trade laws which keep people poor.

JoAnna 02.08.10 | 10:49 PM ET

Thank you for the thoughtful post. I agree with you, but something else that concerns me about the outpouring of aid to Haiti is that Americans are very quick to give right at the start of any crisis - Darfur, Ethiopia, the 2005 tsunami, Katrina, Haiti - but as soon as the next big news story comes along, we move on our merry way. Out of sight, out of mind. We are very quick to pour in money and aid and donated supplies and clothing, but those things don’t actually “fix” anything. They put a band-aid on a problem for a little while, but the foundation upon which the disaster occurred still exists. I served as a Peace Corps volunteer, and I did very little with very little throughout my service (as do many PCVs), but that’s because money and items don’t fix a problem - education and empowerment do. My fear is that Haiti will be out of the news in six or eight weeks, and it will continue to struggle with rebuilding and coming to terms with its losses, but we’ll continue to perpetuate the problems by treating it the way we always have.

Thanks again for writing this and speaking out about this. So few other people have.

Robert Reid 02.09.10 | 12:54 PM ET

Great article. Big questions. I will be very interested in how we talk of/consider Haiti six months from now.

Also, I thought this op-ed in the NYT was about the only thing I saw that tried to ask why Haiti got to this point of poverty. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/opinion/22danner.html

Unfortunately I didn’t hear such insight from CNN’s round-the-clock coverage! Maybe I missed it too.

TambourineMan 02.10.10 | 4:23 AM ET

I’m with you, Rick.

But this?:
“the growing power of corporations’
Sir, they’re already in power. And have been for years and years.

And this?:
“why would our government ever reconsider these trade policies?”
See above.

And this?:
“OK, I guess I am cynical.”
Not nearly enough.

Thanks for the heartfelt article. I don’t know what to do either. Wish I smelled revolution in the air.

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 02.10.10 | 11:27 AM ET

This was an insightful article.  “But we must also look at American and European trade policies that help keep nations like Haiti underdeveloped—tariffs that help keep them “banana republics.”  Everyone rushes to help, but what happens when the telethons and “donation buttons” go away.  How many people actually know the policies that are in place against Haiti?  We forget about little details such as policies.  What’s being done to lift tariffs?  It’s kind of “two-faced” of people to all of the sudden rush to Haiti’s aid when the earthquake hit.  Where were they before that?  They were probably on vacation!

Spanish Tart 02.14.10 | 9:37 PM ET

Rick, thanks for this article, though I only half agree with you.

Opening up your wallet may seem like the easy way out, but it’s also something that most people in the “First World” have the power to do. You can and should try to understand the real reasons for Haiti’s structural poverty, but as an everyday citizen you’re mostly limited to giving money and raising awareness through your social networks – both without much improvement for the Haitian people.

Haiti’s problems need bigger actors than you or me, but are those bigger actors up to the challenge? Probably not. It’s hard to fix a problem if you can’t agree on how to fix it.

Grizzly Bear Mom 02.18.10 | 3:30 PM ET

Although I see Christ like Mother Theresa did “in all his various disguises as the poor, imprisoned, mentally ill, homeless, etc.” and believe he will reward me in accordance with my behavior toward them, the 1986 round of the General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade led to the creation of WTO, and extended the range of trade negotiations, leading to major reductions in tariffs (about 40%) and agricultural subsidies, an agreement to allow full access for textiles and clothing from developing countries, and an extension of intellectual property rights. 

Many, many people are poor because of their own countries’ corruption.  Haiti is an excellent example of this. 

Stop reading what other people write and do your own research.

Kris 04.03.10 | 11:13 PM ET

I agree with many of the above comments that this IS an important issue to think about and to discuss… I know that the tolerance for giving to Haiti IS and will continue to wane as time goes on and that without structural changes in the government of Haiti and in the way it is treated by other nations the problems that have plagued it from its inception will continue.

That said, the way governments are structured with their ties to business and the lack of access a citizen has to their state governor but less anyone with more power these days (and I want to speak specifically about the US even though I believe this applies to other nations as well)... the average citizen getting home from their 9-5 and flipping on CNN does not have truly have the power or maybe more importantly the willpower to work to change the destiny of “developing nation”. even in the US i would argue even the citizens can hardly vote to change their own with the two parties becoming so divided but at the same time looking more and more the same. Can a housewife or a college student or a white collar worker send a text and give $10 bucks to a charity? Yes! And they should if they can - be a good citizen of the world we live in… expecting much more than that is just expecting too much.

Like was mentioned by another reader I wish I saw something new and unexpected on the horizon where people were really interested in root problems and in justice but I don’t….cynicism has done it’s work on me too…

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