Nicholas Kristof provides “a useful reminder of the limitations of charity and foreign aid” in his New York Times op-ed about Haiti today. “Nearly a year after the earthquake in Haiti,” he notes, “more than one million people are still living in tents and reconstruction has barely begun.”
He emphasizes the importance of “trade, not aid” and of the role of business: “It’s hard to think of a charitable project that will be as beneficial as the Coca-Cola Company’s decision to build up the mango juice industry in Haiti, supporting 25,000 farmers.”
He also cites a seemingly successful microfinance aid project that lends money to poor women in Haiti to begin and expand business ventures by, for example, investing in livestock or growing fruit for sale. It is impossible to evaluate the record of that organization based on the anecdotes Kristof provides, but, while microcredit may for a time alleviate the conditions under which poor recipients live (and be successful at pulling some recipients out of poverty), there is little evidence from its overall record that microcredit effectively reduces poverty. It is certainly not a way to reduce poverty on a widespread or sustainable basis. David Roodman of the Center for Global Development notes, for example, that “microfinance institutions in Haiti only reach perhaps 250,000 people, about 2.5% of the population.” (For a critique of some of the claims of microcredit proponents see Thomas Dichter’s Cato study.)
In line with Kristof’s main argument and with decades of evidence of successful countries around the world, the most effective way to reduce poverty in economically repressed Haiti is by opening its markets and increasing economic freedom. Unfortunately, Haiti’s reconstruction and long-term development plan, according to which the United States and international donors have pledged more than $15 billion, reads like a relic of central planning with virtually no mention of policies that promote economic freedom. Two sentences in the document mention the importance of clarifying land titles. One page mentions the role of the private sector, but it is in regards to its cooperation with the government’s “development centers” that will operate throughout the country to stimulate predetermined industries using government funds and guarantees and for “better redistribution of [the] population.”
We’ve been down this road before. If the Haitian government wishes to avoid disappointment and free itself from dependence on international aid, it needs to rethink its approach to development.