A pariah history, some promising starts and now this

Don Pittis on how to help Haiti.
Cindy Terasme screams after seeing the feet of her dead 14-year-old brother in the rubble of the collapsed St. Gerard School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press) ((Gerald Herbert/Associated Press))

In a perverse way, the disaster in Haiti could actually be good for that country's economy.

The influx of relief and rebuilding will undoubtedly boost the country's gross domestic product, which is partly a reflection of GDP's own perversity as a measure of wealth and well-being, something I've discussed in more detail in the past.

But an improvement would also reflect the horror that is Haiti's existing level of poverty even before this latest calamity.

It is criminal that people live (and die) on less that a dollar a day a short boat ride from where so  many Canadians sip drinks on Cuban beaches. Or vacation in the Domincan Republic on just the other side of the island.

The distance between Cuba and Haiti is less than 150 kilometres. My desk neighbour commutes farther than that each day.

Just as horrible is the fact that repeated attempts to drag the country and its people out of poverty have been such an abject failure.

Poor as it is as a measure, the country's GDP per capita actually declined during the 1980s and '90s.

In other words, while the world's economy grew, people in Haiti got poorer.

No one else to help

The Haitian economy is in terrible shape. Its biggest industry is agriculture, but its largest single source of foreign exchange is the money emigrants send home to their relatives.

This latest misfortune only serves to direct our attention to a disaster embedded in another disaster.

Right now, people around the world are pouring money into the relief effort. The aid group Doctors Without Borders has been inundated, says spokesman Avril Benoit.

"Our website," she adds, "has been on the brink of collapse" because of all the donations.

Doctors Without Borders already had 800 staff on the ground before this latest catastrophe.

They were providing medical help to the continuing catastrophe of Haitian poverty.

The organization says it would give up that project in an instant if there were someone else to take over the work they are doing.

It is not traditional disaster relief that it was doing. But there has been no one else to do the job.

Need is greater this time

During the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, Doctors Without Borders (or Médecins Sans Frontières, as its parent organization is called) was the only large relief agency to tell donors when its immediate tsunami relief needs were satisfied.

As the CBC's Carol Off reported at the time, others kept on collecting, hoping they could redirect the money into other projects.

This time, though, says Benoit, the need is "absolutely deeper."

Even so, the public reaction has been so strong that, within a few days, the group will have as much cash as it can spend practically on earthquake relief.

After that, the charity expects to give donors the choice of directing their money to its general emergency fund, or towards MSF's ongoing poverty-based medical program in Haiti.

A crushing debt

Haiti's on-going background level of poverty has been persistent. But understanding why one country stays poor while others grow rich is a surprisingly difficult task, even for development experts.

Fixing the problem is even more difficult.

It is not as if foreign donors haven't tried to set the country on the right track, says Yasmine Shamsie, a Wilfrid Laurier professor who specializes in international development and security efforts in Haiti.

"Yes, there have been true attempts," says Shamsie. "Countries like Canada and the United States really want to solve these problems."

Many development experts blame Haiti's problems on its long history as a pariah state, going back as far as the debt Napoleon forced onto the former French colony as the price of independence in 1803.

People had to pay for the land and the slaves they had "stolen." The stolen slaves, of course, were Haiti's own citizens. They had to buy themselves.

Some good starts

As recently as 1900, 80 per cent of the country's income went straight back out as debt payments. But all the country's economic troubles can't be blamed on foreigners.

Shamsie says that a long line of "predatory leaders," stretching back well before Francois 'Doc' Duvalier in the 1960s, stole and exported much of the wealth that Haiti might otherwise have used for investment.

Even in the current era, with so few outlets for money-making, "the state is the site of enrichment," she says.

And power shifts quickly. "When you are in government, you've got to work fast" to get your share of graft.

Until the earthquake, Canada was one of the participants in the Haiti government's plan to create tax-free "export processing zones," where foreign companies could set up and use cheap Haitian labour.

These would be similar, perhaps, to China's special economic zones, which are credited with spreading Hong Kong and Taiwan know-how to the rest of the country.

In Haiti's case, the most important of those zones was to be in Port-au-Prince harbour — near the centre of the earthquake chaos.

The other part of the government plan was to develop rural areas to create domestic food security.

According to Yasmine Shamsie, "this earthquake puts all of that on hold."

GDP may not tell you much about the relative wealth or happiness of a country's people, but it does tell you something.

According to the CIA factbook, the value of all Haiti's goods and services in 2008, at current exchange rates, was just short of $7 billionUS.

And according to the current issue of the Economist magazine, last year the New York investment bank Goldman Sachs paid its staff $18 billion in bonuses.

I guess we can afford to send a little more.

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.