Ian Birrell: Death, disaster and a shocking reality

Comment

Share
Related Topics

Around the world, presidents and prime ministers mouth platitudes about sharing the pain of Haiti. But they should consider a simple question: how come only 63 people died when an earthquake of the same strength hit northern California 21 years ago?

The answer, of course, is that one is a rich country and the other decrepit. Poverty is the reason the sickly stench of death hangs over Haiti, not the terrible fury of nature.

Even before the quake, life was a desperate struggle. Three-quarters of the nine million people living in Haiti live on less than $2 a day. Half have no access to potable water. It has the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the West, and more people living with HIV/Aids than living with access to electricity.

The state is barely functioning. Corruption is so deep-rooted that nearly one-third of civil servants were found to be "phantom" employees. The president bemoaned the destruction of his tax offices this week, but it has been estimated 95 per cent of employment is in the underground economy. And how many people have jobs? No one really knows, although probably fewer than half the working age population.

This is why so many human beings had their lives destroyed in Port-au-Prince while their more fortunate brethren survived in San Francisco. Grinding poverty, compounded by festering corruption and shameful governance, led to the fallen buildings that killed thousands, the lack of a state response and the wrecked ports, collapsed hospitals and blocked roads.

Right now, Haiti desperately needs emergency aid. But longer term, the devastation should make us question the structural aid policies that have failed in Haiti just as they have failed in so many other countries.

Nine years ago William Easterly, a former World Bank economist, published a landmark book asking why more than one trillion dollars had been dispensed by the developed world in half a century to recipients who remained mostly poverty-stricken. Haiti was a key example of a nation that had frittered away huge sums.

The country continues to receive torrents of aid, with more than £3bn handed over since 1990. It is said to have more non-governmental agencies per head of population than anywhere else. Some indicators are improving, such as under-five death rates, although these also improved when much aid was suspended because of political upheaval. But the goal of genuine development remains as elusive as ever, demonstrated with shocking force once again this week.

Indeed, some aid has actually made Haiti's situation worse. The World Bank found a "total mismatch between levels of foreign aid and government capacity to absorb it", and donations have fanned corruption, cronyism and inequality. The United States, the biggest donor, insisted Haiti consumed American food transported on American ships, which hurt the local economy. Many of the best public servants left for the better pay offered by aid agencies.

These problems are not unique to Haiti and, of course, aid is not the cause of most of the country's problems. But similar problems have emerged elsewhere. And still no one has effectively answered the question posed by Easterly and, more recently, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo.

Yet this week both Gordon Brown and David Cameron pledged to ensure Britain hits the target of handing over 0.7 per cent of national income in overseas aid.

This is a policy designed to appease domestic audiences. Long-term aid is important but should be based upon realistic assessment of needs and capabilities, not pressure from pop stars. The hallowed target, first calculated by lobbyists four decades ago, appears increasingly arbitrary. A study has found that applying the same methods of calculation to modern conditions would lead to a fraction of the amounts now being pledged.

When targeted, aid can be stunningly successful, as with the campaign to eliminate the scourge of guinea worm in Africa. But much of it is wasted, and it has often had unintended consequences that hinder rather than help development.

Haiti will need sustained assistance to recover. If we really want to help fragile nations, we should tear down trade barriers and crack down on banks that launder the plunder of corruption. We should liberalise drug laws that cause chaos around the world. And we should welcome more immigrants, since remittances sent back to families are the most direct and successful form of aid. But while helping the world's poor, such measures would create political storms at home.

i.birrell@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Day In a Page

 

Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace

Gabriel Sassoon
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride