Failing Haiti

“How the world failed Haiti” is the title of a gloomily critical article by Janet Reitman in the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine. The gist of Janet’s argument is that a year and a half after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, the country remains in a mess, and that the efforts of Bill Clinton, the US government, big business, philanthropists and non-profits have failed to achieve their ambition to “build Haiti back better”. Instead, there has been a “disaster of good intentions.”

As we have argued before, the natural disaster in Haiti provided an important test of philanthrocapitalism. In a blog post soon after the quake we outlined a range of things that philanthrocapitalists might do, and concluded that “although this is a terrible tragedy, it is also an opportunity for creative thinking – for doing things much better than before. This has been probably the biggest contribution that the philanthrocapitalists have made to global development – new ideas that challenge orthodoxies and conventional wisdoms.”

The Rolling Stone article quotes Matthew repeating our view that “the hope is that using the private sector will be a lot more efficient. Traditional aid has been extremely wasteful. When it is allowed to take the lead, the private sector is more likely to try something new or entrepreneurial.” It then quotes Matthew saying that “ultimately it all comes down to governance. There was this tremendous outpouring of goodwill after the earthquake, and this idea of ‘build back better’ caught on — but for all their consultations, no one really found out what the Haitian people’s concept of build back better actually was.”

Clearly, things have not gone as well in Haiti as, in our more optimistic moments, we had hoped. Yet the positioning of this second quote in the article means that a reader might easily interpret it as pinning the blame on the trampling of Haitian democracy by what “might be called the ‘New American Plan'” and “the demands of the bottom line”. That is not at all the meaning of Matthew’s quote, which actually was about how difficult it is, with the best will in the world, for philanthrocapitalists to succeed in a country where there is failed political governance and a lack of serious interest by local politicians in delivering what their people want.

A reader might also wrongly interpret Matthew’s quote as a criticism of Denis O’Brien, the Irish philanthrocapitalist boss of Digicel, a mobile phone company. Actually, Mr O’Brien has been one of the more effective supporters of Haiti since the earthquake, showing that a smart philanthrocapitalist can make a positive difference even in the most inauspicious circumstances.

Ultimately, the Rolling Stone article, whilst containing much genuinely disturbing and distressing information, fails to prove its case that the continuing problems in Haiti are due to the bottom line being given too great a role. Nor does it provide any reason to think that an alternative, non-philanthrocapitalistic approach would have worked any better than what was tried. Which is not to deny that mistakes were made by the philanthrocapitalists who have tried to help Haiti; it is just not clear from the article what those were or how they might have been avoided.

Yet although it is flawed, and we still think there is hope that philanthrocapitalism can help build a better Haiti, we welcome Rolling Stone‘s scrutiny of what is happening there, and the debate it will hopefully provoke about what could be done better – a debate that, no doubt, President Clinton will be continuing to lead next month at the Clinton Global Initiative. As we wrote with regard to Haiti in The Daily Beast, “Our giving is an act of the heart, but that should not stop us from thinking hard about how to ensure we are putting our money to the best possible use.”