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Quake an opportunity for foreigners to “get Haiti right”? Aid “shock doctrine”?

NEIL MacFARQUHAR in a good NYT story this morning  (self-promotion alert: I am quoted in the story) notes all the discussion that the quake is an opportunity to sort out all the problems of long-run Haitian development. But an opportunity for whom? Apparently for foreigners. The story mentions some of the proposals for foreign intervention:

Haiti should be temporarily taken over by an international organization

{Bill Clinton as} Haiti reconstruction czar.

“Is it too wild a suggestion to be talking about at least temporarily some sort of receivership?” Senator Christopher J. Dodd, ….Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, echoed that thought, adding, “I think something far more draconian than just us working behind the scenes to prod reforms and those kinds of things is going to be necessary.”

This current debate is an ironic echo of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, which is an excessively hysterical rant on how conservative foreigners impose free market doctrine on poor countries when they are reeling from things such as…natural disasters. Beneath Klein’s purple rhetoric is the germ of a good idea, however: foreigners should not exploit disasters to bypass local, homegrown choices. The liberal version of the “Shock doctrine” is that disasters are an opportunity to impose their own statist solutions to development.

Even if the recipient of “shock therapy” does not have a democratic government, foreign intervention is also non-democratic. You can’t trust foreigners to have the right incentives and the right knowledge — all they will wind up doing is delaying further the homegrown efforts of the locals to solve their own problems, with domestic politics distorted futher by xenophobic reactions against foreign intervention.

Foreign intervention is just another variety of the perpetual fantasy: the benevolent autocrat who will “get development right.” We have already seen how this movie ends in Haiti, which has been the recipient of multiple military interventions and grand aid plans over more than a century — with the unhappy results that were on display before the earthquake.

Haitians certainly could benefit from some foreigners providing relief and aid to individual , but only if the foreign providers are humble searchers  like Paul Farmer, and not grandiose and coercive foreign planners like those quoted above.

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  1. karis wrote:

    I don’t usually even point out issues related to this, not thinking myself as much of a modern feminist (I’m more of an egalitarian), but as a woman, I find your use of the adjective “hysterical” as somewhat offensive. Surely you could have thought of a word that was more sophisticated and lacking a pejorative etymology. I for one would like to hear academically (in a couple of lines) what you have to say is wrong with the points in Klein’s work in relation to the topic.

    Otherwise I appreciate the post.

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  2. Jeff wrote:

    I think this post and some of the discussion on the situation in Haiti suffers from failing to make a distinction between development and a relief operation. A good relief operation is, for better or worse, a very top down affair. There is no time to get customer buy in or design empowerment strategies when the objectives are meeting people’s needs for food,water, health care and shelter. In this case, the top down operation was necessarily a foreign top down affair because what little capacity the Haitian government had before the quake was destroyed. But whatever structure is put in place now for a relief operation should be rapidly dismantled once the situation stabilizes and the Haitian government can resume its responsibilities. The people who are suggesting that the relief structure should take over government and development for the medium and long term are wrong. And so are the people who are complaining that the relief operation is too foreign controlled and top down.

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  3. William Easterly wrote:

    Karis, I follow the maxim the customer is always right, so I take your concern seriously. It honestly did not occur to me that there was any gender association with the word “hysterical.” The association in my mind was entirely with tendencies that tend to be on the boundaries of a kind of conspiracy theory approach to politics and economics. There is both a “hysterical left” and “hysterical right,” and I didn’t associate either tendency with the gender of the members. Thanks for your feedback. Bill

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  4. William Easterly wrote:

    Jeff, I meant this to apply to the long run development discussion on Haiti, not to relief, sorry I didn’t make that more clear. Best, Bill

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  5. Michelle wrote:

    Thank you for this post, I appreciate the intelligent commentary on this blog.

    I disagree with the notion that a good relief effort is a top-down affair. How many relief efforts have been known to have major flaws when they failed to consult with the people they were trying to “save”? Lots, right? I think a good relief effort, in the moment of crisis, looks top down, but should be the result of lots of bottom-up, participatory, locally-driven planning.

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  6. Emin Pasha wrote:

    Well, but Haiti’s people are universally acknowledged to be dynamic and entrepreneurial; it’s the government that’s been the problem. I agree with Easterly that poverty is best overcome by individuals operating in a free market. But how do you overcome a predatory government from below? Unlike the benign processes that help nations overcome poverty, the processes that overthrow oppressive government usually lead to still more oppression.

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  7. I four ideas that I feel could help the poor people of Haiti substantially.
    First, Haiti should be reforested using the technology that was developed by the Gaviotas II project in Colombia. See book “Gaviotas – A Village to Reinvent the World”.
    Second, aid agencies should plant moringa and tropical fruit trees to provide food security for both animals and humans. Most moringa trees and shrubs are easily propagated and do not require high management inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, etc.) or advanced technology. Poor Haitian farmers can dramatically increase their nutrition by mixing moringa leaves with their food. Also, moringa can increase beef and milk production. The use of these trees should dramatically increase the number of jobs available in Haiti. The technology already has been proven in a number of tropical areas. See Powerpoint slides at “Trees for Life” website.
    Third, produce micro-irrigation equipment in Haiti for use throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. The customers are there. See IDE-India, Kickstart, and ChapinLivingWaters websites
    Fourth, repeat the UN FAO West Bengal India backyard poultry success in Haiti. See “A Backyard Poultry Value Chain Increases Assets, Income and Nutrition”

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  8. karis wrote:


    I should have made clear I did not think you intentionally meant anything about the word “hysterical” (it is pretty clear you have a respect for equal rights for women). I just meant to highlight it was a very poor choice of words. Etymologically, the word is gendered, linked to associating women as neurotic because of hormones (specifically neurotic behavior associated with the womb).

    I do stand by that I wish you would choose more sophisticated ways to critique, because I do think this blog is one of the more thoughtful responses to big issues, and the more snarky interjections, while often amusing, make it more difficult to share it with people who might gain some insight from it.

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  9. This is another example of people emotionally reponding to a serious issue. Problem solving needs a fine balance between the head and the heart. This is the same problem that plagues Africa. People see images and hear stories then respond with intense emotion. This type of response and charity will never lead to sustainable progress.

    The movie “The Wizard of Oz” gives a good example of the characterictics of a collaborative effort to solve a problem. The Tin Man asked for a heart. The Scarecrow asked for a brain. The Lion asked for courage. These are the elements needed in an individual or an organization to solve major global challenges.

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink
  10. Robert Tulip wrote:

    An administrator for Haiti appointed by the international community should be more a searcher than a planner. Prof Easterly’s claim that such a person would lack required knowledge and incentives ignores reality and plays to outdated fears of imperialism.

    Compared to local politicians, who need to rise through the bruising corruption of Haiti’s “democratic” process, an impartial administrator can focus on broad based economic and social development, not just on political dealing.

    Secured by military force, an external appointee will have the ability to focus on the medium and long term needs to address Haiti’s severe poverty, changing laws, institutions, budgets and regulations towards best practice, and encouraging return of the diaspora into leadership positions.

    Haiti’s tragedy is an opportunity for a change of paradigm, recognizing that democracy has failed as a system in failed states, and that international protection is the best way forward for Haiti’s people.

    Posted January 31, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  11. Ray wrote:

    Mr. Easterly, you forgot a recent proposal made by Daniel Rodriguez(, who said Haiti and Dominican Republic should merge. This proposal shows how uninformed some scholars are about the Haiti-Dominican Republic relationship. This story got to the Dominican press and it was wildly rejected by the Dominican population.

    Posted February 1, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  12. Stephen Jones wrote:

    Surely you could have thought of a word that was more sophisticated and lacking a pejorative etymology

    Well he could have, but hysterical does describe Klein’s book, which also has loads of factual errors, often caused by her dodgy sources in certain countries.

    Posted February 1, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  13. Javier wrote:

    Dr. Easterly,

    While I agree with you that long term development cannot be planned by foreigners – as Jeff noted on a previous post – there is no time for discussion between local ownership or foreign intervetion when it comes to provide shelter for the upcoming rainy season starting in June. The urgency to avoid another catastrope in just a few moths – with heavy floods washing out temporary shelters – supersedes the wrongs that a foreign-led intervention might cause.

    Beyond that point, it is to the Haitians to take the lead with homegrown initiatives.



    Posted February 1, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  14. Andy wrote:

    I blogged last week that with big government back in style, American post-quake aid efforts would inevitably lead to calls for the US government to establish some form of colonial authority over Haiti. The motive would be the desire to ensure the success of relief programs, substituting an external authority for Haiti’s weak or destroyed institutions. I thought it would take a decade or so for this to happen – but Chris Dodd is already pushing for it. I wish I’d been wrong!

    Posted February 1, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  15. Didier wrote:


    Those are good ideas but don’t assume they havn’t been tried in Haiti. They have and some have worked to some extent and some were less successful. The problem is the externalities that are often beyond the control of well intentioned and even succesful projects.

    e.g. A Gaviotas-like experiment that allowed landless peasants to reclaim salinated lands and farm it resulted in their massacre by larger landholding interests who felt threatened by the scheme.

    e.g. Peace Corps, among others, was doing some work on introducing Moringa plants and processing it into powder before they had to leave after the Aristide coup.

    e.g. Fruit trees have been a staple of many reforestation projects but are also among the most vulnerable crops to hurricanes.

    e.g. backyard poultry has been tried and even has a good local market but is highly vulnerable to Newcastle’s disease which wipes out the stock at regular intervals.

    I’m not saying don’t try these things, just that there are no magic bullets in the form of particularly brilliant projects that will automaticaly save the country. Almost every “projet du jour” has been tried and then some.

    The one thing Haiti does have are people who are willing to get back up after being knocked down and are ready to go to work on any idea that will fill their pots in the evening and even the next evening if they dare think that far ahead.

    It would also help if they get to have a say in the future they are building because they’ve been down that other road before and it hasn’t worked out well for them either.

    Posted February 1, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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