What an economist learned in Haiti

I recently spent a week in Haiti helping with reconstruction efforts. I volunteered only as someone with two hands and a lot of Gatorade, but my professional background as an economist allowed me to diagnose some of Haiti’s problems. These go much deeper than the earthquake.

I registered with the non-profit group Hands on Disaster Response (HODR). They sought people with skills relevant for relief and reconstruction efforts. Until filling out their online form, I never realized just how useless I was in the grand scheme of things.

Armed with my Ph.D. in economics from a prestigious school, I could easily calculate profit-maximizing quantities in unrealistic models. But when it came to construction or engineering, I admitted with shame that my only relevant experience was using a screwdriver to pop open the bathroom door that my son had locked from the inside. Did I have any medical training? Again, my only experience derived from fatherhood, with dirty diapers and scraped knees.

Despite my lack of relevant skills, the HODR people asked me to fly to Haiti in late April to join their base camp in Leogane, a city about 18 miles west of Port au Prince and the epicenter of the earthquake. It seemed the quake had happened the day before, rather than months in the past.

Many streets were still littered with rubble, navigable only by rugged trucks and motorcycles. With little heavy equipment, Leogane’s residents could do little to recover from the earthquake. Indeed, the teams HODR sent out were also ill-equipped.

A dozen of us would tackle toppled houses with only pickaxes, sledgehammers, and shovels, spending days on a site when a modern construction crew could have cleared it in an hour with a backhoe and dump truck. Even so, the HODR teams had far more equipment than the former homeowners, now living in emergency tents adjacent to their collapsed homes. When some of those residents would help us remove the rubble, they lacked gloves and even shoes.

American engineers and doctors explained how inadequate the Haitian procedures were, in terms of building practices and hospital setup. These outsiders, however, couldn’t immediately rectify the situation, because of two related problems.

First, Haiti is shockingly poor and to do things “the right way” would have cost more than the local population could afford, and so corners were inevitably cut. Second, even when the American experts recognized that some things really could be improved by a simple change in policy, it was difficult to communicate this because the Haitian engineers and doctors were typically not as well trained.

For example, even if the visiting American engineer could design a sturdier house using the same materials available to the local builders, the efforts could only go so far if the Haitian designers continued using their inadequate traditional techniques.

It was crucial for the outside world to send relief supplies and personnel in the wake of the earthquake. Indeed, when I saw just how devastated the infrastructure was—with widespread power and water outages months after the quake, and roads still clogged—I was amazed that Port au Prince managed to support such a dense population. Without food and medical care from the outside, many more Haitians would have died.

Donations and volunteers, unfortunately, cannot fix Haiti’s economy. As a professional economist, I was asked several times what my recommendations would be. Poverty and related culture, certainly, will make recovery difficult. Unemployment approaches 90 percent and the government, by all accounts, is incredibly corrupt. I sadly concluded that there were no quick fixes, but the general direction of reform should be apparent.

For one obvious example, Haiti is a beautiful island with stunning mountain ranges backdropping the capital. Yet the Port Au Prince airport itself was dilapidated, with the immediate vicinity bustling with scam artists preying on foreigners. If Haitians address these problems, the nation could eventually enjoy a booming tourist trade like the Bahamas.

As the foreign volunteers leave, Haitians should aim to make their nation friendly to capital investment and to cultivate a culture of entrepreneurship. That will help create the jobs that Haitians desperately need.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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