A recent episode of NPR's "This American Life" (quite possibly the best reportorial journalistic enterprise going today -- an admission that might cost me my right-wing decoder ring) focused on the plight of Haiti. The island nation was a basket case long before last January's horrific earthquake. Indeed, despite the fact that the country hosts some 10,000 aid groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), it has gotten worse over the past half-century. Haitians on average make half as much as they did 50 years ago. Despite the best of intentions, aid agencies simply haven't made the country better.
The usual answer from the left is a long indictment of America and the West's legacy of racism, imperialism and slavery. But even if you concede all of that, it won't get you very far in explaining why Haiti has only gotten worse as that legacy has faded further into the past and the West has grown in generosity. (Roughly half of all American households donated to earthquake relief.)
"This American Life," hardly a capitalist hotbed, has a more constructive answer: Haiti's problems in large part boil down to a culture of poverty. Haitians do not lack the desire to make their lives better, nor do they reject hard work. But what they sorely lack is a legal, social and intellectual culture that favors economic growth and entrepreneurialism.
In one NPR vignette, a mango farmer needs a small canal from a river abutting her property if she wants to expand her crop beyond two meager trees. Technology "Sumerians probably took for granted 5,000 years ago" could transform this single mother and her kids from "some of the poorest people on earth to much better off," according to reporter Adam Davidson. But despite a surplus of both cheap ditch-digging labor and aid agencies, she can't get a loan to build it.
"This is what kept striking us in Haiti, just a little upfront investment and people could be living so much better," added fellow correspondent Chana Joffe-Walt.
Instead, Haitians themselves explain, most aid agencies spend much of their energies trying to justify their own existence rather than helping Haitians help themselves. There are important lessons here for U.S. policymakers, not just in regard to Haiti (hardly a national security priority) but also for such places as Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly now that President Obama has announced the combat phase of the Iraq project is coming to an end.