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How to Help Haiti 3: David Brooks

posted by Scot McKnight

We are reposting David Brooks’ piece from the NYTimes on Haiti. His third point, and one that will surely draw an instinctual reaction from many of us, is that Haiti has a cultural issue at work in its poverty. What do you think of this point?

Third, it is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty. Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.



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Brian H

posted January 20, 2010 at 4:21 pm


The comment about cultural factors is a touchy one – partly because there are elements of truth to it that we might not like to face. But culture isn’t created in a vacuum — and one of the things that makes me uncomfortable about this line of thinking is that it can pretty easily excuse ways that past actions and injustices helped shape the conditions of the brokenness in cultures.
It seems to me that some of the dialogue about corporate sin and redemption that get lifted up in the civil rights struggle might apply here.



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MarkP

posted January 20, 2010 at 7:59 pm


Brooks says, “Over the past few decades, the world has spent trillions of dollars to generate growth in the developing world. The countries that have not received much aid, like China, have seen tremendous growth and tremendous poverty reductions. The countries that have received aid, like Haiti, have not.”
If only we’d given a bunch of money to China, we’d know our aid was working!
Like a lot of Brooks’ columns, the points are interesting but the logic seems sloppy and circular.



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Samuel

posted January 20, 2010 at 9:37 pm


As a Haitian, I find Brooks comments mere conjecture and speculative – at best. The comparison with Barbados and the DR are inaccurate, which proper historical research will show. To say that Haiti’s poverty has a cultural underpinning and that it is “progress-resistant” is saddening. Many parents in Haiti do all they can to make sure their kids go to school and get educated, and if need be, make ways for them to come to the US or another foreign country for education in order for cultural progress to made. There is more I can say, but I will stop here.



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Samuel

posted January 20, 2010 at 9:37 pm


As a Haitian, I find Brooks comments mere conjecture and speculative – at best. The comparison with Barbados and the DR are inaccurate, which proper historical research will show. To say that Haiti’s poverty has a cultural underpinning and that it is “progress-resistant” is saddening. Many parents in Haiti do all they can to make sure their kids go to school and get educated, and if need be, make ways for them to come to the US or another foreign country for education in order for cultural progress to made. There is more I can say, but I will stop here.



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Naum

posted January 21, 2010 at 2:03 am


http://anthropologyworks.com/?p=1100
Nothing matches up in Brooks? linkage of Harlem and Port-au-Prince ? the comparison is a total clunker ? nothing matches up, that is, other than a discourse of veiled white supremacy designed to blame Blacks for whatever ill God and man throws their way and to provide a white-dominated state with a standing excuse for doing too little, too late.



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Mike Clawson

posted January 21, 2010 at 4:31 pm


Even if there is a little sliver of truth to Brooks’ claim of Haitian fatalism, lack of responsibility, and social mistrust (and, having some personal experience in Haiti, I have seen some small evidence of this, as well as much evidence to the contrary as well), we have to ask how exactly it got that way. Could these attributes be a result of Haiti’s long history of paternalism and manipulation directed at them from the United States and US-supported dictators, rather than anything innate in the Haitian people themselves?



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