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NYT’s David Brooks on “What Works in Development”

An editorial in the NYT by David Brooks discusses “What Works in Development” (see our previous posts on the book) in the context of explaining why aid has thus far failed to achieve growth in Haiti.

In the recent anthology “What Works in Development?,” a group of economists try to sort out what we’ve learned. The picture is grim. There are no policy levers that consistently correlate to increased growth. There is nearly zero correlation between how a developing economy does one decade and how it does the next. There is no consistently proven way to reduce corruption. Even improving governing institutions doesn’t seem to produce the expected results.

The chastened tone of these essays is captured by the economist Abhijit Banerjee: “It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control.”

(We should point out that the book has some positive messages to offer too, for example on how economists are reaching some consensus around using rigorous evaluation to study what does work.)

Read the whole op-ed here.

Also of interest in the article is Brooks’ argument that Haiti’s “progress-resistant” culture is largely to blame for the country’s extreme poverty. This strikes me as overly reductive (although interesting recent economics research does point to the importance of values like trust in determining prosperity.)  Brooks’ list of rejected explanations include slavery and colonial history, bad government and corruption, foreign invasions,  geography and climate. I wonder what others who have spent time studying, living or working in Haiti think of the relative weight of these explanatory variables.

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  1. Didier wrote:

    Never miss an opportunity to profer generalizations and cursory stereotypes. Aid hasn’t helped much with economic growth – that’s true except for the times there has been enough stability to promote export oriented growth in the manufacturing sector and that has been haphazard. Export oriented agriculture doesn’t stand much of a chance in close proximity to the subsidized rice and sugar crops of Florida. Coffee and cacao had some opportunities but turmoil, deforestation and poor investment tend to undermine those opportunities. Tourism? Not until the politics get stabilized…and the infrastruture gets rebuilt.

    What aid has done however is get people educated, provided health care and kept many people fed and housed. I think if one looks at the stats in terms of life expectancy, literacy, school enrollment, etc. over time, that statement will hold up. It is basically serving as a social safety net and has been doing so since Baby Doc times when most of it was mandated to go through NGOs knowing anything that went through the government would be misused.

    The politicians and the cops in the Dominican Republic have historically been pretty corrupt too, but stability has setup tourism and assembly sector industries along with some export oriented agriculture that has allowed the counry to do better. Still, what most Caribbean economies survive on is remittances. They export people to the US, Canada, France and the UK to prop up the folks at home. This is as true in Barbados as it is in Haiti. Let them come here to work and their countries will be better off but I think most aid is designed to keep them at home. Where does Brooks stand on that?

    Posted January 15, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  2. Coca Colo wrote:

    Honestly, I found his article insensitive and borderline racist. There are an enormous number of things that differentiate Haiti from the other countries he tries to compare it to, including being the only French-speaking country in the Western Hemisphere. I would never describe the Harlem Children’s Zone, which Brooks has lauded in another (better) column, as paternalism, and think paternalism is the last thing Haiti needs!
    Check out my take here:

    Posted January 17, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  3. Joanna Pritchard wrote:

    “Brooks’ list of rejected explanations include slavery and colonial history, bad government and corruption, foreign invasions, geography and climate” — to quote you — if Brooks had bothered to do the minutest amount background reading about Haiti he would have realized that these structural conditions are present in staggering, awful abundance and more than account for the present; Brooks would also have discovered, if he’d cracked any books, that Voudou-type religions exist all over the Caribbean, that millions of impoverished Haitian people do NOT practice voudoun, and that Haitian people are unbelievably tough, hard-working and resilient. He also appears ignorant of the history of political manipulation from foreign sources, particularly the USA in its crusade against Communism which propped up the brutal Duvaliers as a counterpoint to Cuba, but penalized and destabilized the democratically elected Aristide regime. Not to mention agricultural and industrial policies that kept Haitian incomes unbearably low. And what evidence does Brooks produce for rejecting these causes? None. He offers China as a good model? Tiananmen Square anyone? Or maybe it’s a hidden population control reference? Frankly I am disgusted by this article. It started off well pointing out the vulnerability of the poor to natural disasters, but descends rapidly into ignorance and speculation. I doubt David Brooks has ever even set foot in Haiti yet there he is spouting off discrminatory, influential garbage to his giant audience who may just decide not to bother donating to Haitian relief and rebuilding. I pray not.

    Posted January 20, 2010 at 12:50 am | Permalink
  4. fundamentalist wrote:

    Corruption is a major problem in Haiti, but probably no less than in China. But China had wealthy expatriats who wanted to invest in China. They had learned to protect their property in corrupt SE Asian countries like Thailand and the Philippines by using family connections and bribes of government officials. In other words, they used the corrupt officials to protect their property. Naive Americans who invested in China in the 1980’s and 90’s without connections or bribes often had their property confiscated by corrupt state officials. The defunct McDonald Aircraft lost millions that way.

    Apparently Haiti doesn’t have expats who are willing to invest in Haiti, and if it does they don’t know how to use family connections and bribes to protect that property.

    Of course, the best answer would be laws and semi-honest bureacrats who would not steal investment in Haiti, but that doesn’t seem likely.

    Posted January 20, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

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