We came through relatively unscathed by Sandy – only three days without power. Others had to wait longer, but eventually all affected towns had power restored and roads cleared up. Normal life has resumed. It happened sort-of on its own, except in reality it didn’t. It actually happened because there was a relatively efficient state machinery behind the recovery. Not perfectly efficient (and sometimes horribly inefficient, as the earlier disaster of Katrina and New Orleans showed), but it came through well enough “for government work.”
We tend to take these things for granted – that our society will speedily rebuild after a natural disaster – but it shouldn’t be taken for granted. There is now a large part of American population who believe that nothing but evil could come from the government. They want to reduce it in size, perhaps even to nothing. This point of view is now amply represented in the government itself, at least in the legislative branch.
Such an anti-government mood is a fairly new development. Yes, the ideological roots of the Tea Party movement go back to Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and to Ayn Rand. But for many decades after the New Deal such views were on the very fringe of the political spectrum, or even beyond it. When Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964 on a platform that would be considered moderate by today’s standards, the corporate community abandoned him – he was just too extreme. The turning point came later, in the late seventies, and since the Reagan presidency the acolytes of Hayek and Ayn Rand have been gaining influence and power.
(It’s probably worth stressing at this point that I am not taking a partisan position here (e.g., for the Democrats and against the Republicans, or vice versa). The Social Evolution Forum is a platform for discussing ideas rather than for pushing any political or ideological agendas. The question is what evolutionary science can tell us about how societies function, and also how they could function even better. And it turns out that some of the specific answers may be unpalatable to liberals, others to conservatives.)
Returning to the issue of the state and how we take its normal functioning for granted, we only need to look to those places on Earth that lack functional states. The Evolution Institute (the parent organization of this Forum) has an ongoing program on Failed States and Nation-Building. One case-study within that program that is being currently developed is that of Haiti.
Haiti was hit by a truly horrible disaster – the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January 2010 that killed 200,000 people. But what was even worse is that in the almost three years since the earthquake the Haitian society has been unable to rebuild itself, despite billions of dollars of aid and thousands of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that came to help.
In fact, a recent article in the Nation, The NGO Republic of Haiti, argues that far from helping the Haitian society to reconstitute itself, the NGOs actually exacerbated the problem. Because the Haitian government (such as it is) is perceived to be highly corrupt (which it undoubtedly is), the NGOs chose to channel the foreign aid not through the government structures, but through parallel structures of their own.
Much of the problem is that NGOs are responsible not to the Haitian people, but to their own sponsors. The Nation article gives a number of examples of how the aid dollars were misspent – not necessarily because they were embezzled, but because they were used on projects that weren’t really needed.
I would add that the problem is not just that the desires of the sponsors of the NGOs don’t coincide with the desires and aspirations of the Haitian people. It goes beyond that. A couple of years ago my journal Cliodynamics published a very interesting article by Edward Turner, Why Has the Number of International Non-Governmental Organizations Exploded since 1960?
In the article Turner argued that the acceleration in international NGO numbers was caused by the post-war baby boom and a crisis in the credential system. He developed several lines of evidence suggesting that demographic-structural mechanisms contributed to the surge in NGO numbers during the last 50 years as a by-product of intraelite competition. In other words, the explanation of why there were thousands of NGOs in Haiti has more to do with the supply side (too many bright and over-educated West Europeans and North Americans, more than their societies can find employment for), rather than the demand side (the needs of the afflicted population).
But this only explains why thousands of NGOs descended on Haiti in the wake of the earthquake, not why the Haitian government was so ineffective in mobilizing internal resources and channeling foreign aid into effective reconstruction. The Nation article suggests that the government in Haiti was “decimated’ by the earthquake, but in fact Haiti was a failed state even before the earthquake. Between 2005 and 2009, even before the earthquake, external aid has already exceeded the revenue available to the government.
After the earthquake, external aid exceed internal revenue by more than a factor of four. Only 1 percent of the aid was channeled through the government. By taking over the functions of the government, the NGOs further weakened it, and when they leave, as they inevitable will, they will leave behind a devastated sociopolitical landscape, an asabiya black hole. This effect is sometimes known as the Samaritan’s Dilemma. How do you aid people without making them dependent on the aid?
Although the Nation article argues (fairly persuasively) that the earthquake and NGOs together destroyed the last vestiges of the Haiti state, it does not address the question of why the state was so weak even before the earthquake. Those of us who have lived long enough remember well the dramatic events following the collapse of the Duvalier regime in 1986, the election of Bertrand Aristide, the military coup against him, the US intervention and the return of Aristide, etc. etc.
One interesting fact that the Nation article mentions is that
The US government, which had been a key benefactor of the twenty-nine-year Duvalier regime, later encouraged Haiti to lower import tariffs on American rice from 35 percent to just 3 percent. American rice flooded the Haitian market; a similar demise for Haiti’s sugar and coffee industries soon followed.
By the mid-1990s, the Haitian agricultural sector—in which 60 to 70 percent of the Haitian population made a living—lay in ruins. NGOs then swooped in to “rescue” the population, largely sidestepping the various Haitian governments, which they deemed too weak and corrupt to consider working with directly.
Add to this the earlier US occupation (1915-1934) and it all seems to add up to a story of how the first ever black republic established as a result of a successful revolution of slaves against white planters was later destroyed by the unwanted attentions of the powerful neighbor to the north and the misguided (if not worse) actions of thousands of NGOs. Is this a good explanation of why Haiti lacks an effective state? Perhaps I will return to this question in a future blog (and in the meanwhile I would be very interested in hearing the thoughts of the readers of this blog).
But whatever reasons for the failed state of Haiti, this case study amply demonstrates how those institutions cherished by anti-government ideologists, the free market and private charity, can wreck the economy and polity when there is no strong state to provide a framework within which they could effectively operate.