What Can Be Done for Haiti?

How best to aid Haiti in the aftermath of its devastating earthquake? That question can’t begin to be answered without thinking hard about how Haiti came to be one of the poorest nations in the world, having been among its richest colonies.

In an essay in his just-published Natural Experiments of History, Jared Diamond puts the question the way you want it to be asked – comparatively. He examines the histories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two halves of the island of Hispaniola, the first place Columbus stopped in the New World. Natural Experiments is an exemplary book, short and graceful, conveying a broad swathe of the most interesting work going on today around the world in departments of economics, political science and anthropology, under the heading of comparative political economy. The story of Haiti is especially compelling.

Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles, is author of the best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel. His essay, “Inter- and Intra-island Comparisons,” is one of seven in the volume he co-edited with James A Robinson, of Harvard University. The collection is designed to showcase and explicate a little the intricacies of a favorite method of sciences concerned with the study of the past – evolutionary biology, paleontology, historical geology, epidemiology, astronomy and all kinds of social science.

Where scientists can’t conveniently or legitimately manipulate matters themselves, as in the laboratory or clinical studies, the editors say, they search for situations in which history has done the manipulating for them. Perturbation or no perturbation? Compare the development of areas of Africa subject to slaving or not; or areas of Germany invaded by Napoleon or not. (Be sure to ask why the perturbers selected the sites they perturbed!)

Different perturbations? That’s the story of North and South Korea, East and West Germany, or, in the present case, the Dominican Republic and Haiti – one,a functioning democracy with a relatively prosperous growing economy; the other, an international basket-case.

Diamond writes:

From the air, anyone who has ever flown from Miami to Santo Domingo will have seen the obvious border standing out on the landscape 30,000 feet below, as if the island had been cut by a sharp knife. To the west of the knife line, the island is brown and treeless; to the east of the line, it is green and forested. If one actually stands on the border facing north and turns to one’s left, one sees the muddy bare fields of Haiti, while a few dozen yards to the right of the line begin the pine forests of the Dominican Republic. This sight makes it clear that it is impossible to understand Haiti without understanding the Dominican Republic.

The broad outlines of the story are these: After Columbus, disease quickly all but extirpated the indigenous Arawak people. Spanish colonists slowly spread unevenly over the island, threatened by French, English and Dutch pirates. In 1697, Spain ceded the western third of the island to the more powerful French. They renamed the new colony Saint-Domingue.

There were certain natural disadvantages. The rain in Hispaniola comes from the east, so the western end of the island is somewhat drier. Haiti lacks the broad, fertile Cibao Valley of the Dominican Republic. It has more mountains and shallower soil. Deforestation, which set in 250 years ago, is a vicious circle: fewer trees mean less rain but more erosion, which means fewer trees….

Different colonial strategies produced a second set of telling differences. Spain had richer colonies in Mexico and Peru competing for investment, and purchased relatively few slaves for its Hispaniola holdings. France poured slaves into Haiti to work its plantations: half a million of them by 1785, versus 15,000 to30,000 slaves in the eastern half of the island. Rather than return home empty, French slavers took back lumber, and so began the deforestation of Haiti’s steep hillsides. Meanwhile, Haiti’s slave population, verging on 85 percent of the whole, but drawn from diverse African language groups, improvised a language of its own, a Haitian Creole today spoken nowhere else in the world (except among overseas Haitians). Dominican slaves mostly learned Spanish.

That set the stage for Haitian Revolution. Diamond relates the key events with telegraphic (and just-minded) concision:

Haiti’s slaves achieved freedom and independence in 1804, after ferocious struggles against French armies beginning in 1791, the return of a Napoleonic French army in 1801 to restore French rule, France’s treacherous capture of the slave leader Touissant-l’Ouverture at a parley, and French evacuation of Haiti beginning in 1803. Those events led Haitians correctly to distrust Europeans and to fear a return of Europeans could mean yet another attempt to re-impose slavery. Hence independent Haiti killed the remaining whites, and divided and destroyed their plantations. Thereafter the last things most Haitians wanted was European immigration and investment. Conversely, the last thing that many slave-owning Europeans and Americans wanted was to see a revolt succeed, so they refused opportunities to invest in or help Haiti, and that became a major factor behind Haiti’s increasing poverty.

The Dominican experience was very different. Spanish settlers didn’t declare independence until 1821 and then were promptly conquered by the Haitians and governed by them for twenty anxious years before reverting to the Spanish crown for another two decades. Only in 1865 did the Dominican Republic finally emerge. Then, unencumbered by a legacy of successful slave revolt, the newly-independent state began trading freely with European nations and accepting immigrants, “whose economic significance was out of proportion to their modest numbers,” according to Diamond. Haiti, on the other hand, was censoriously shunned by European nations through most of the nineteenth century.

Thus climatic and environmental differences were greatly amplified by social histories. After 1930, political differences became even more important. Dictator Rafael Trujillo took control of the Dominican and operated the nation as a family business, emphasizing exports and encouraging tourism, hiring expert foresters from Sweden and Puerto Rico and protecting large tracts of timber from being harvested by others. In Haiti, “Papa Doc” Duvalier ruled from 1957 until 1971 (and his son “Baby Doc” until 1985) without contributing much of anything to the island’s development – least of all forest management.

Such are the broad outlines of the natural experiment of Hispaniola. Be glad, says Diamond, that his brief essay (far more nuanced, naturally, than this account) set out only three major sets of factors, rather than confronting the reader with a 800-page monograph assigning proper weight to another 73 considerations. Be glad, too, perhaps, that he did not pursue the suggestion with which his essay ends – that the comparison be extended in include the circumstances and histories of the other three neighboring islands of the Greater Antilles, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Jamaica (though surely there is a useful lesson to be gleaned about Cuba’s experience of revolution and subsequent US embargo).

The fact about Haiti that stands out above all others in this telling is the marooning of an African population on a Caribbean island, the uniquely violent war of independence that followed, and its legacy of retribution and mutual mistrust – two centuries of near-isolation and estrangement.

It’s against this backdrop that a catastrophic earthquake last month rocked Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s most populous city, killing more than 200,000 persons, injuring many more than that, demolishing 250,000 residences, destroying important government facilities and disrupting completely inadequate sanitation systems. Its elite died in disproportionate numbers: the headquarters of the United Nations Stabilization Mission collapsed, killing many of its staff.

So what, if anything, can be done for Haiti that is different before? Beyond burying the dead and feeding the living, what adjustments might be made to the overall strategy of aid?

Even this brief history should make it clear that foreign occupation is not an option. The very founding of the nation involved a violent throwing-off of domination. (Americans governed the country for nineteen years after Woodrow Wilson sent a few hundred Marines to Port au Prince in 1915. President Clinton restored Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president with the intervention of 20,000 U.S. troops in 1994.)

Nor is there room for voluntary receivership. Even the UN mission must tread carefully. “We must act quickly to put forward our own vision for Haiti, or else foreigners will impose their own,” Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told his cabinet last week, according to David Gauthier-Villars of The Wall Street Journal. The conviction that Haitians should govern themselves is deeply ingrained in Haitian society.

That leaves aid, which leads, more or less directly, to the anomaly reported by Stephanie Strom last week in The New York Times, under the headline “Haiti Crisis Renews Talk of Pooling Relief Money.” Her dispatch began:

Before the earthquake, the American Red Cross had 15 people in Haiti working on projects like malaria prevention and measles vaccines. Partners in Health, a charity based in Boston, had more than 700 doctors and nurses among a staff of almost 5,000 operating a hospital and multiple clinics around the country.

Yet the Red Cross has raised nearly $200 million for its relief operations in Haiti, and Partners in Health about $40 million.

No one doubts the American Red Cross’s competence in quickly putting food, medicine and shelter on the ground. But brand recognition and marketing skill counts as much, if not more, than “scope, relevance and quality” in disaster relief, wrote Strom. So pressure is growing to pool donations for disaster relief and appoint expert committees to distribute funds to the organizations best poised deliver services. The Red Cross itself adopted the pool approach after the Asia tsunami in 2004.

Development aid is an endlessly complicated subject. Hundreds of organizations exist to somehow or other diminish the gaps between the world’s poorest and richest economies. Among the best of them is Boston’s Partners in Health. The organization was founded by physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer and several friends in 1987, to foster the capacity for health and medical care in Haiti. Since then it added operations in another eighteen nations, and employs around 11,000 persons around the world. It was famously described in 2004 by author Tracy Kidder in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. For twenty years, PIH has worked shoulder to shoulder with a growing corps of Haitian health professionals.

And that is the real point of this column. Rebuilding Haiti’s housing stock and physical infrastructure is important. Building its human capital is even more important. So if you want to do something for the earthquake victims and haven’t done it yet, make a donation to the Stand With Haiti project of Partners in Health.