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Haiti: Negative Commentary and MLK Jr.

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"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

Martin Luther King Jr.

What a better day to print a response to David Brooks', New York Times, weekend op-ed piece which demonstrated as I am sure Dr. King would agree, "sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." This weekend David Brooks made a choice to use his column to spread fallacies and to distort history and reality.

My response is that the earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath is more than a disaster story; it is also the story of poverty. Poverty is one narrative among many, to isolate it as the sole cause of problems in Haiti is unreasonable. Yes, Haiti has poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure, and a lack of public services.

Brooks says:

... 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.

The CIA Factbook puts Barbados's population at 284,589, a mere fraction of Haiti's 9,035,536. Apples and oranges.

Brooks then discusses the political history of Haiti speaking of dictators and invasions contrasting it to the Dominican Republic, saying that the D.R "is in much better shape ... 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."

The Dominican Republic's national development followed a very different trajectory from that of Haiti -- one where it was not subjected to having to compensate colonizers.

It is a shame that David Brooks chooses to see the situation in Haiti only in terms of dollars and cents, when he should view it in light of humanity.

"People are the real wealth of nations," states a Human Development Report, put together by the United Nations Development Program. "Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value. And it is thus about much more than economic growth, which is only a means -- if a very important one -- of enlarging people's choices"

For those who insist on viewing Haiti from a purely economic standpoint here are the facts.

1804 - 1825: Following a bloody independence Haiti was subjected to embargoes and blockades
1825: France demanded that Haiti compensation in the form of $150 million gold francs or $22 billion (US) in today's dollars
1838: France ever so graciously reduced the dept to a mere $60 million francs to be paid over a three decade period
1883: Haiti made the final payment to France.

(For more on the economy of Haiti read Tunku Varadarajan piece on "Why Haiti's Earthquake Is France's Problem," found on the Daily Beast.)

Brooks also writes:

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.

I could site a number of religious practices found in a variety of regions around the world, including Catholicism and Buddhism, where poverty still exists. The gross generalization concerning voodoo places all Haitians, practitioners and non-practitioners alike into the same sphere of reference.

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.

I have never met a Haitian who believes life is capricious and planning futile. No one chooses to be born into poverty and have a lack of access to the food, shelter, clothing, and education, things which as Americans we take for granted. My question to the author is: what exactly is it that these parents are retaliating against their children for? I was raised by two wonderful parents and my friends who spent their childhoods in Haiti are not worse for the wear. They are wonderfully respectable citizens who contribute human capital to society-at-large, the most important commodity in any world economy.