Why the Haitian Earthquake will Change Nothing about Development


Haiti is pretty far outside my competency, so have only a few thoughts. This is the abbreviated version of my thoughts in the radio transcript below.

1. Natural disasters change nothing in international relations, because they are essentially one-off events. Everyone reads their favorite theory into the mess that follows. Even ever-dependable Pat Robertson managed to find a Christian fundamentalist interpretation in which the earthquake is divine payback for a vodoo pact with the devil to help Haitian independence. The point is that for all the destruction and death, there is little ‘learning,’ but a  great deal of reconfirmation of whatever your pet theory is. It is then easy to forget these catastrophes. Recall that the even Asian tsunami was promptly forgotten in a few months. So will this.

2. Given the above, let me add my ‘real’ interpretation of what happened. The deep cause of the tragedy in Haiti is state failure. Natural disasters are not ‘blameable.’ They simply are, just like gravity or the rain. The issue is what do we do about them. And the public sector is how we cope with such public goods as building codes. Given the staggering incapacity of the Haitian government, very little was done to provide that in Haiti. By contrast, I mention in the transcript below how well Japan deals with its many earthquakes.

3. The US military is still the order-bringer of last resort. It is funny how much the Euros, Chinese, or Arabs loathe US power until something like this happens and only the US military has the global transportation network to actually rapidly move volume in tens of thousands of people or millions of tons of cargo. Call this the upside of the military industrial complex. And it provides good evidence of Mandelbaum’s thesis that the US government provides a lot of ‘world government’ services.

4. Development assistance is woefully underfinanced, and the extra tragedy on top of this tragedy is that even the high Haitian death toll won’t change how much the rich states give in development aid. The UN asks for 0.7% of GDP. Only the green Nordics (Canada, Scandinavia) even come close to that. For readers of this blog, both the US and Korea give less than 0.1% The numbers didn’t budge after the even more cataclysmic tsunami. There is no reason to expect that to change.

5. In part, I attribute this lack of change on the bigger issue of development to the way the media covers these events. Instead of providing investigative journalism on why Indonesia or Haiti were so vulnerable, the only story-line is the awfulness of it all. As Juan Cole pointed out, no context is provided; its all just solemn headshaking and pseudo-‘action journalism’ by show-boaters like Anderson Cooper running about in highwater boots or something.  Where is the story about how the Suharto family looted Indonesia for decades leaving it with a weaker infrastructure than its growth rate would have dictated? Where is the story about the long (and somewhat shady) involvement of the US and France in Haiti? I am an East Asia IR guy, and even I know some of the basics on the US relationship with the Duvalier family of Haitian dictators. But I haven’t seen that once in the coverage. Good lord, the US media is shallow…


…this week we are going to discuss the tragedy in Haiti and Korea’s role in development assistance. Hi, Dr. Kelly.


Hi, Petra. Thanks for having me



Thanks for being with us again today.



It’s my pleasure.


The earthquake in Haiti was a terrible disaster. How did this happen?


That is a good question, because earthquakes are in fact quite common on the tectonic fault lines around the world. Japan, for example, sits right on intersection of tectonic plates in western Pacific. It is hit by earthquakes regularly, but with nowhere near this level of devastation.




Well for starters, as countries become wealthier, they can afford better infrastructure. That is, they build stronger, more resistant buildings that rely on seismological and topographical information. For example, in New York City, you will notice that the taller buildings are concentrated at the southern part of Manhattan island, where the bedrock is deepest and hardest. Similarly in Korea, the most attractive and most architecturally sound buildings are concentrated on the outskirts of Korea’s cities, which developed later, when Korea was wealthier. But it costs lots of money and requires lots of trained technicians to do the necessary physical measurements for this kind of sophisticated building. Many poor countries do not have these kinds of resources, so people simply build whatever they can. Such shantytowns are inevitable easily damaged by extreme weather or other disasters. That is what happened in Haiti.



So Haiti lacks the wealth to build modern, structurally sound buildings?



It does, and this is one area where medium-term aid can really make a difference. But the quality of Haiti’s building codes is really derivative of its continuing political problems, an issue of development that many Koreans should easily remember.


What does that mean?


Well, quite honestly, Haiti is not very well-governed. Haiti is what we call in political science a ‘failed state.’ Because governance in Haiti is so poor, there is very little economic growth. No one wants to invest in a country where his investment might be stolen by gangs, thieves, or corrupt state officials.

This story should sound familiar to Korea, because Korea went through something like this in the 50s and 60s. Under President Lee Syngman, Korea too was desperately poor, but a functioning government was slowly built from the wreckage of the Korean war. Later, under President Park, that coherent, reasonably efficient Korean state was able to provide a framework for Korean economic growth. So as Korea modernized in the 60s and 70s, it was able to afford luxuries like better building codes. And better building codes mean extreme natural events don’t create tragedies like Haiti right now.


So Korea’s position was similar to Haiti’s 50 or 60 years ago?


Kind of. Korea was extremely poor; illiteracy was high; growth was low. Had a massive earthquake struck a Korean city in 1948, the devastation would have been terrible. The point is that good governance allows growth. Growth means more money. More money means better, stronger infrastructure. And better infrastructure means natural disasters, which are a regular feature of the planet, will be less devastating. In fact, as global warming accelerates in the coming decades, this will become a more and more pressing issue. Especially populations that live on the coasts in warm water areas will see more and more typhoons.


So what about Korea’s role in helping these countries? What is Korea doing in Haiti?


Well initially of course, these countries need massive amounts of quick aid and money. And the world has responded. Korea has donated $10 million dollars and sent a team of 100 medical personnel. Korea is now in the OECD, the club of rich countries, so there is a global expectation that when disasters like this or the Asian tsunami strike, Korea will also respond.


What can Koreans do right now if they want to help?


Give money. The biggest problem in natural disasters is usually transportation and infrastructure. There is more than enough food in the world, so the required volume of calories is out there. The real issue, as we saw in the tsunami relief effort also, is getting this assistance to people. Such disasters usually wipe out the transportation network, so actually moving food, water, tent-housing, etc., becomes the big problem. And that is what you see right now in Haiti. The airport, seaport, and roads were all badly damaged. So much of the aid is being flown in by US military helicopters. That is excruciatingly slow.


So why does money help? And to whom should one give it?


Well money is more flexible than donated food or bottled water. Money allows the UN and aid agencies on the ground in Haiti to buy the resources they need specifically for this crisis. So in Haiti, there is a clear need to construction equipment to clear debris so that all the assistance can get through. Money can help the aid groups to buy that sort of thing.

As for whom, I would recommend a nongovernmental organization. Smaller, private aid organizations tend to be faster and more nimble than the big bureaucracies of the United Nations.


What is Korea’s longer-term role?


In Haiti, it is probably very little. Once the situation in Haiti is stabilized in the next month, the reconstruction effort will slowly shift to regional players like the United States, the Organization for American States, and the big Latin American countries like Brazil. This is quite common. Korea development aid, for example goes mostly to Southeast Asia countries like the Philippines.


I was also thinking more broadly about Korea’s role in development.


Well Korea is a good case of a country that emerged from African levels of poverty in the 40s to a typical wealthy country by the 90s. Much of the world would like to emulate that. Korea is powerful example case to be studied and possibly imitated.


Is there something more concrete?


Yes. Korea now sits on what we call the Development Assistance Committee, or DAC, of the OECD. The DAC tries to coordinate all the official development assistance given by rich countries to the poor ones. Korea recently joined the DAC. The UN requests that rich countries give 0.7% of GDP to the DAC. Korea gives about 0.1%.


That seems low.


It is, but this is common. Most rich states give far too little, especially if you note that more than one billion people live on less than 1$ a day. Try to imagine how harsh such an existence must be. The US gives an even smaller percentage than Korea. This is a shame actually. The best long-term thing Korea could do is publicly budget more aid, but this is unlikely.


Thank you, professor, for coming again.

8 thoughts on “Why the Haitian Earthquake will Change Nothing about Development

  1. Dr. Bob:

    Very interesting read.

    “I am an East Asia IR guy, and even I know some of the basics on the US relationship with the Duvalier family of Haitian dictators.”

    Also don’t forget that the US later removed Baby Doc Duvalier, paving the way for Aristide.

    By this token would you blame the US for Charles Taylor? Taylor was backed by both President Jimmy Carter and President Clinton. President Carter not only endorsed Chuck but went as far as to open a center in Monrovia (that he later closed). President Clinton sent a special envoy yo Liberia, The Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. to meet with Chuck. The Rev. Jesse Jackson jr. later reported to Clinton that Chuck was the kind of guy the US could do business with. In fact President Clinton almost revoked the emergency immigration status of Liberians (who were seeking refuge in the US.i.e. illegal Liberians living in the US). He was going to send them back to Liberia.

    However, I do agree with your post vis a vis the coverage of Haiti.

    Here is a question that I good friend of mine are contemplating collaborating on as an op-ed for a major US newspaper:

    From about 2004/2005 both Haiti and Liberia were given new leases on their respective future by US military intervention. Following the US’ initial intervention the UN took over in both cases. Liberia went up and Haiti went down. Liberia is even now noted as one of the emerging countries in Africa in which foreign direct investment can strive. Why?

  2. Also, both Liberia and Haiti have direct connection to slavery. They are both countries, that for the most part (Haiti*) were, established by freed slaves.

  3. The US media’s coverage of these sorts of disasters is atrocious. Notice how little they ask WHY things like 9/11, Katrina, or Haiti happen. Because the answers are compicated and political, best to just avoid any meaningful investigative journalism. Instead just send pretty young ‘journalists’ to walk around in raincoats for ‘action journalism’ cred. It’s garbage.

    The Haitian earthquake is an obvious opportunity for all sorts of documentaries and investagiations on the country. Viewers could have learned a great deal in the last month. But no. The media jsut didn’t even try. Consider last year when they stopped covering the Iranian post-election riots to cover the death of Michael Jackson. The Haiti coverage is a similar failure of journalistic seriousness.

  4. I agree 100%. Well, they have already begun to look elsewhere. And you are right, this will do nothing for development. I mean, with all of the money and resources that have/are pouring into Haiti, five years from now, Haiti should be on the up and up right? We will see.

    • Don’t count on it. How different is Indonesia for the tsunami assistance or Pakistan for the earthquake assistance? My 5-year prediction for Haiti is that it will be just as bad as it was before the earthquake. I see no causal link between the earthquake and the radically better domestic leadership and institutions Haiti needs for suistainable, serious growth.

  5. Pingback: What the Japan Tsunami Tells Us about International Politics « Asian Security Blog

  6. Pingback: Asian Security Blog: What the Japan Tsunami Tells Us about International Politics

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