Saturday, January 16, 2010

Why is/(was) Haiti so Poor?

Tyler Cowen (Marginal Revolution) asked this question a few days ago. Tunku Varadarajan makes the political case for why France owes Haiti (the Daily Beast): "first a brutal colonizer, and then a usurious bully."

While I'm generally not one to shy away from 'blame France' rhetoric (and while I have little doubt as to their historical culpability and the state of many of its former colonies), the clues for their more recent causes of poverty can be found here (World Bank's Doing Business) and here (Heritage Foundation's Economic Freedom Index):

Haiti scores below the world average in business freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom, property rights, and freedom from corruption. Starting a business takes four times longer than the world average, and commercial laws are applied inconsistently and non-transparently. Restrictions on foreign capital are significant, and investment is subject to an arbitrary bureaucracy. Prolonged instability has weakened the rule of law.
While I'm not nearly as pessimistic as to believe that this will be the end of Haiti (the Economist blog), one prays that in the aftermath of this massive tragedy, Haitians will be able to rebuild stronger than they were before.

Trying to imagine the plight of Haiti's 9.4 million inhabitants in the immediate aftermath is sobering. (See the before and after satellite imagery here, ReadWriteWeb)

Update: According to the World Bank: great natural disasters are often a catalyst for huge, positive change.


M said...

A number of papers now show that human capital, particularly, average cognitive ability is very important for economic growth/development.

''The impact of smart fractions, cognitive ability of politicians and average competence of peoples on social development'

Talent Development and Excellence, 1(1), July 2009

It is also well documented that population groups differ in average traits.

Rushton, J. P., & Jensen, A. R. (2005). Thirty years of research on differences in cognitive ability. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 235-294. -

More on this will be identified over time.

"We will also identify the many genes that create physical and mental differences across populations, and we will be able to estimate when those genes arose. Some of those differences probably occurred very recently, within recorded history. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending argued in “The 10,000 Year Explosion” that some human groups experienced a vastly accelerated rate of evolutionary change within the past few thousand years, benefiting from the new genetic diversity created within far larger populations, and in response to the new survival, social and reproductive challenges of agriculture, cities, divisions of labour and social classes. Others did not experience these changes until the past few hundred years when they were subject to contact, colonisation and, all too often, extermination.

If the shift from GWAS to sequencing studies finds evidence of such politically awkward and morally perplexing facts, we can expect the usual range of ideological reactions, including nationalistic retro-racism from conservatives and outraged denial from blank-slate liberals. The few who really understand the genetics will gain a more enlightened, live-and-let-live recognition of the biodiversity within our extraordinary species—including a clearer view of likely comparative advantages between the world’s different economies."

Clement Wan said...

Thanks for your comment. I wonder though if you're suggesting that there are certain races that are genetically predisposed to entrepreneurship or to have the sufficient intelligence in order to industrialize?

I admit I read through the study with suspicion particularly given their suggestion of low cognitive abilities of both George W Bush and Barack Obama - somewhat ironic given their labeling of Bush as "Bush Junior" when his father did not have the exact same name as required for the nomenclature of Junior. Nevertheless, this does not answer the question of correlation or causation. There are innumerable studies that show that child development has an effect on cognitive ability. So the question becomes does development result in improved cognitive ability? Surely you can see the problem particularly when they use such measures as number of patents or even in assessing the cognitive abilities of politicians. Finally, it would be useful to know what the percentage of politicians who grew up and were raised abroad as this is not uncommon either.

In developing countries the best and brightest leave in search of better opportunity/education in what's commonly referred to as the brain drain. But the thing is they also come back for the right opportunities - but they come back better educated and better equipped.

Finally, if indeed you're making the argument that a country like Haiti is just genetically predisposed to lack cognitive abilities, I would point out that entrepreneurs are often not considered the academically 'best and brightest'. Have a look at the links here: