Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti, Poverty, and Media Chaos

Chris Blattman notes something very important about current media accounts of apparent post-earthquake social chaos in Haiti:
Is robbery so endemic? One of my wife’s colleagues, a veteran of dozens of catastrophes and crises, is amazed by the (relative) calm and absence of looting. She reports storefront windows broken, but the goods behind intact. She’s seldom seen a crisis so under control.

Most journalists I know are keenly aware of the impact of their work on public opinion and policy... But looters and thugs on the front page only bolsters impressions that Haitians are ungovernable. This is a tragedy if untrue.

I wish I could say that security and aid decisions are not made on the basis of what is fit to print in the Times, or that accurate intelligence always filters up from the ground to the policy makers on high...

...an aid and security policy designed for thieving, ungovernable, progress-resistant Haitians looks very different from one that views civil society institutions as shaken but fundamentally strong.

I’m worried because the latter doesn’t make a very good news story.

David Brooks took the opportunity in the Sunday NYT to suggest that the apparent chaos in Haiti is really a matter of poverty. For all the generous efforts of the wealthy, developed world, Brooks, says, there is still no final answer to poverty, economic development, and corruption. He writes that we should accept the hard reality that, "some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them."

Brooks' answer is that the Haitians - still digging dead family members and friends and strangers from the rubble - need more of a personal responsibility approach to their impoverished condition. Brooks subtly shifts blame for a devastating natural disaster to the character of the Haitian people themselves in a secular and urbane version of Pat Robertson's recent remarks. Robertson, of course, had said that the disaster was visited upon the Haitian people because they long ago made a pact with the devil - "true fact" - in order to drive out the French colonialists. Thus, "...we need to pray for them a great turning to God."

For his part, Brooks concludes his column with his own "great turning,"
It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
Haiti is poor in many ways - income, literacy, mortality rate, environmental conditions, etc. Poverty usually entails much greater vulnerability to natural disasters and social, economic, and political shocks. Regarding climate change adaptation, for example, vulnerability to the effects of climate change tracks poverty with geographic features often determining degrees of risk and likely intensity. These two elements are mutually reinforcing as the poor often live by default - for socioeconomic reasons - in high-risk areas and are ill-equipped to reduce their vulnerability to environmental shocks. Why poverty exists in the first place is an old question that involves political and economic context, history, and the cosmic accident of particular institutional and environmental conditions into which any given individual is born. But, in our moment in history, the reality is that poverty persists. As this century moves along, I think we're going to come to view Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake as harbingers.

Yes, it's true that poverty is complex and thus difficult to understand. It's true also that half a century of Bretton Woods institutions and development economists ostensibly fighting global poverty has still not yielded an encompassing concept of poverty and what to do about it. But, to set aside Brooks' indecorousness, he assumes that a conclusive definition of and approach to poverty is necessary and/or sufficient to global anti-poverty policy. In fact, this same assumption may be at the heart of the failures of the Bretton Woods institutions.

For most development economists in practice, low income - below $1 or $2 per day - remains the determinant of poverty. But this easily measurable definition of poverty has been challenged over the past several decades by more sophisticated studies, conceptual frameworks, and empirical data. Today, we think of poverty in economic and non-economic terms. In some cases, the very word "poverty" has been replaced by other terms such as "well-being" precisely because the former has failed to capture important elements, often qualitative, of the human condition and development. There exist different approaches - different monetary approaches, Amartya Sen's capabilities approach, social exclusion approaches, participatory poverty assessments - yielding different sets of data and targeting somewhat different objectives. Poverty or human well-being is measured in different ways - UNDP's Human Development Index, income poverty, the Human Poverty Index, aggregate approaches, etc. None of these approaches and forms of measurement can be considered comprehensive. Income as an indicator of poverty quite possibly retains its salience in the development industry precisely because income can be measured quantitatively (while aspiration, for instance, cannot), which makes for neater comparisons across spatio-temporal contexts and is thus considered more "objective."

The conceptual model that has failed is the unidirectional paternalistic model. Once the World Bank finally got around in the 1990s to asking poor people what they themselves want - a massive survey compiled in the three eye-opening volumes of Voices of the Poor - it became clear that the poor across cultural and national contexts don't want handouts but simply the ability to start a small business of their own or gain some semblance of security. The poor don't want dependency; they want autonomy like everyone else.

But - and this is essential - poverty is corrosive in that it destroys aspirations, the engine necessary for helping people pull themselves out of poverty. When you've come up against the same obstacles time and again, a reasonable and efficient response is to quit trying. Think of people in the US trying to find jobs in this lousy economy. The 10%+ unemployment rate doesn't include the deeply discouraged who have given up looking for employment. It's the same phenomenon. At some point it's futile to continue to look for employment. Once this happens, one's aspirations for the future undergo a transformation; one's sense of well-being is recalibrated. With poverty, once any aspirations to move beyond poverty are destroyed, one focuses attention elsewhere - on scavenging for food on a given day, for example.

The "personal responsibility" claim implicit in Brooks' column is a function of a mythical and simplistic view of poverty, one that's currently worming its insidious way through media accounts of the Haiti situation. I think it probably says more about those of us enamored of our generosity than about objective reality on the ground in Haiti.

1 comment:

MT said...

Brooks' easy invocation of "personal responsibility" suggests the unconscious smoke-and-mirrors that happens when people talk about organizations and institutions as if they were agents and let our resulting judgments accrue to members. And if you're a believer in an Invisible Hand, what need do you have for diagrams and balance sheets? From individual self-interest we derive the average--and vice versa. If you believed the devil was in the details of anything, you could never have a job like David Brooks--which is probably why punditry seems to select for ideologues. There's too much to know. Better have a simple theory.