David Brooks Wants to Know Why Haiti is Poor

David Brooks starts out strong in a New York Times editorial asking why Haiti is so poor. He makes the very good point that development economics has remarkably few consistent ideas on how to bring about growth. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse a couple of paragraphs later. He ends the piece blaming voodoo and Haitian culture for the nation’s ongoing poverty and his recommendation for change is “paternalism.”

When talking about the challenges of international development, Brooks is absolutely right. None of the development economists of our day seem to agree with each other – witness the constant disagreement between, say, Bill Easterly and Dani Rodrik. We know how to do some things – lower infant mortality, improve education attainment – but we don’t know the magic formula to increase GDP and improve quality of life. Brooks is also right that micro-aid will only get you so far. Lots of tiny efforts don’t seem to add up to much change anywhere, not just in Haiti but throughout the world.

The next section of his editorial is when things go off the rails. He quotes “The Central Liberal Truth,” a book that has been debunked by just about anyone who took the time to read it and then think, and attacks Haitian child rearing practices. His comment, “Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10,” is downright slanderous. In my web searching, I can’t find anything to support that claim, and I’d be willing to bet that David Brooks has no more prior knowledge of Haiti than I do.

In fact, I know he has less prior knowledge of Haiti than I do, because he goes on to blame “the voodoo religion” for spreading the message that “life is capricious and planning futile.” Haitian Vodu is actually a monotheistic religion with an emphasis on supporting ones community and helping the poor.

It’s tempting to blame Haitian culture for the country’s poverty.  The Dominican Republic sits next door like a case-control experiment. Culture must have an impact on growth and development; it’s too important not to. What that impact is, however, is up for debate, just like the rest of the big development ideas.

We have terrible poverty on much of our planet. The US government can’t even get the unemployment rate in Detroit down below 50%. I wish we could pin Haiti’s poverty on national culture; at least then we’d have a cause to work on. The fact is, Brooks got it right in the first paragraph. We’ve still got far too much to learn about ending poverty.