B̶u̶i̶l̶d̶i̶n̶g̶ Burning Bridges

When I think about politics, I try to be objective.[1] I try to understand the motivations behind different actors, I generally try to give most lawmakers, the benefit of the doubt, that they are doing what they believe to be is the right thing, given the constraints that they face and the incentives that they are presented with. I might think that the decision is misinformed, or misguided, or short-sighted; it’s rare for me to conclude that a given action is morally wrong.

That, however, is exactly what I have concluded about the government’s apparent decision to suspend approval of all new aid projects to Haiti. The decision was announced last night by Minster Fantino during an interview with La Presse, and seems to have been to the apparent surprise of just about everyone, including the Haitian ambassador and his own civil servants at the Canadian International Development Agency. If it turns out to be an accurate statement of Canada’s policy going forward—and there continues to be significant confusion on this point—I find the decision wrong in just about every way imaginable: it’s morally callous; it’s short-sighted policy-making, and it’s even potentially a political misstep.

Recent decades (indeed, recent centuries) have not been kind to Haiti. Sticking with the post WWII era, the country has had its society shaken to its very foundations by 30 years of Duvalier dictatorship, repeated coup attempts, an armed uprising eight years ago, and a devastating earthquake and flood less than three years ago. (The photo above shows the Presidential Palace shortly after that last calamity.)

This, then, is the country that Minister Fantino was referring to when he said. “Are we going to take care of their problems forever? They also have to take charge of themselves.”

A bit more context: From 1957-1986, the country was under the dictatorship of the Duvaliers, father and son. “Baby” Doc fled protests, and was replaced by a prolonged period of disorder marked by military coups, and fraudulent elections. Only in 1994 did the country return to a democratic path, with the assistance of an American-led international political and military intervention.  The country has remained a somewhat wobbly democracy ever since.

Throughout the years of dictatorship and instability, the country’s economy shrank as a result of kleptocracy and the flight of tens of thousands of Haitians with money, or education, or both.  By the time democracy was restored, the country’s economy and its political institutions were in shambles, and have never really recovered since. Corruption—often a vital part of Haitians’ personal survival strategies—remains rife, the continuation of patterns deeply engrained during the Duvalier era. Deforestation is also major problem, as the country’s trees were the only available fuel for many Haitians. Consequently, every storm that passes through the Caribbean hits the country harder than anywhere else, as there are no roots to stop the floods and mudslides that follow.

So, the decision to suspend all new aid is ethically wrong. It doesn’t matter if one is guided by liberal principles demanding respect for the rights of all human life, or Christian principles that demand care and attention to the poor, or conservative principles of individual liberty and the protection of private property: by any moral standard I can think of, providing assistance to Haiti constitutes an ethically desirable act. It is something we ought to do.

It is bad policy. There is a rich and varied literature on the best ways to fight corruption using foreign assistance, and no firm conclusions yet, but complete withdrawal of support is not a course of action that even the most hard-hearted economist would endorse. On the contrary, the balance of evidence continues to suggest that the benefits of engagement outweighs the costs, that aid in general helps to reduce corruption and improve living conditions in even the most dire situations (i.e. those where help is most needed).

It is moreover something Canada can do relatively well. We have a vibrant Haitian diaspora community in the country, centred in Montreal. There are bonds of language and culture, strengthened through joint membership in La Francophonie. We have built up country-specific expertise throughout provision of development assistance to the country over the last two decades. Haiti is also geographically “in our backyard;” given current international trends towards increased focus of aid by donor nations, it makes sense for Canada to make Haiti a greater priority, and let other donors take care of other, more distant countries.

It is also short-sighted policy. Haiti’s problems will be with us—and you can interpret “us” in a variety of ways—for a long time. Solving problems of that magnitude can only done over the course of decades, even generations. Expecting results in a few years is to suggest (at best) a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the situation.  If Canada withdraws aid now, Haiti will simply require that much more assistance the next time a hurricane blows through, an earthquake hits, the country’s political institutions and representatives fail its citizens, or someone disagrees with the country’s President and picks up a gun.

Finally, it may also be bad politics. I find it hard to imagine that anyone, if they knew the facts about Haiti and Canada’s involvement there, would conclude that suspending all aid is the right thing to do. Accordingly, if Canadians start thinking seriously about how they want our country to act in the world, and compare that to the way they are currently being represented internationally, they might start to seriously question whether the current office-holders are the right people for the job.


[1] To put it more nerdily, I am aware of my own inescapable subjectivity, and try to proactively identify and control for my own beliefs, assumptions, and ethical commitments

photo credit: United Nations Development Programme via photopin cc

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