UPDATE: Why We are Right to Rebuild Haiti or An Argument for Charity

UPDATE on 10/20/2010: Here’s a link to a good TED talk on how the vast majority (like, ~99% perhaps) of lives lost during the Haiti earthquake were due to poor building construction.  The speaker notes that what is required for better buildings isn’t more money beyond what’s already required to rebuild Haiti, but just more training for Haitian builders (at a minimal extra cost.)

I read a blog post called “If You Rebuild It, They Will Come” by a man named Paul Shirley.  In it, Mr. Shirley argues that we shouldn’t give/have given money to the Haiti relief effort due to the poor position they (he claims) put themselves in.  To me, even if the Haitian’s were entirely to blame for the damage the earthquake did to their country (I believe luck & history had a lot to do with it), such criticism is missing the point of an urgent relief effort.

Mr. Shirley’s criticism is a bit like giving a lecture to a badly injured speeding motorist, as he bleeds to death, on how he should have driven more carefully, rather than taking him to a hospital.  I’d prefer to take him to the hospital first, and give him the lecture later.  Mr. Shirley also seems to assume that the governmental and institutional failures of Haiti should be reasons to deny its citizens aid.  For starters, in no point in Haiti’s history do ordinary citizens appear to have be in a position to build up either the physical or intellectual capital necessary to privately look after their own needs beyond a subsistence living.  With regard to intellectual capital, schooling in the local Creole language did not even occur until 1922, less than 90 years ago.

(BTW: I’ve linked many of my sources, but if I state something unlinked/cited, it is from Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge.)

Haitian civil unrest & violence

Mr. Shirley might argue that these citizens who are now victims of the quake are the very ones who caused the violence and civil unrest that’s been the source of so many problems throughout Haiti’s unstable history.  I suspect he would be wrong.  Let’s look at a parallel case in Afghanistan or Iraq.  You could blame the Taliban in Afghanistan for the poor conditions and civil rights abuses.  However, the Taliban are estimated to number in the tens of thousands in Afghanistan.  Let’s assume there are 100,000 of them.  The Afghanistan population totals about 28 million.  That means that only 0.36% of the population are Taliban, or 1 in 280.  You might counter by saying that yes, 279 out of 280 AREN’T Taliban insurgents, but since they outnumber them, why don’t they revolt and kick them out of the country if they don’t like the conditions caused by the Taliban?  I would suspect it’s the same reason I wouldn’t take up arms against the US government if it decided to become a totalitarian dictatorship tomorrow: I’d get slaughtered.  The Afghanistan people are poor, like the people in Haiti (who are even poorer.)  They lack education and military and financial strength.

Similarly in Iraq, there are roughly 100,000 – 130,000 insurgents.  If we divide 130,000 by the population of 31 million we get 0.42%, or about 1 in 240 people.  My point here is that a relatively small amount of people with guns and resources can control a much large number of people without one or the other.  Thus, blaming the typical Haitian citizen for not kicking violent organized groups out of the country is unrealistic.

Poverty and lack of financial & intellectual capital

“By most economic measures, Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. It had a nominal GDP of 7.018 billion USD in 2009, with a GDP per capita of 790 USD, about $2 per person per day.[1]

However, of that ‘wealth’, about half of it is in the hands of Haiti’s richest 1%.  Thus, GDP per capita for 99% of the country is actually $1 per day.

“About 80% of the population were estimated to be living in poverty in 2003.[1] Most Haitians live on $2 or less per day. [72] Haiti has 50% illiteracy,[73] and over 80% of college graduates from Haiti have emigrated, mostly to the United States.[74]

So of those folks that DO get access to education (very few), 4 out of 5 leave the country for greener pastures. (And who could blame them?  Mr. Shirley certainly wouldn’t, unless they stayed behind to contribute to their home country’s economy and got crushed in the earthquake; then he’d blame them.)

Government & Corruption

I’ve established why I believe it’s ridiculous to assume that Haiti’s private sector could’ve been expected to prepare for the earthquake, which would’ve been relatively unaffordable, but what about the government?  Surely there must have been some capital stored up to build earthquake-proof houses etc for the masses?  Unfortunately, that is also not true, in part due to looting of Haiti’s coffers by corrupt officials:  “It is estimated that [a former Haitian president, his wife] and three other people took $504 million from the Haitian public treasury between 1971 and 1986.”

“Similarly millions was stolen by [former president] Aristide.[80][81][82][83][84] During the Aristide era, drug trafficking emerged as a major industry. Beaudoin Ketant, a notorious international drug trafficker and close partner of Aristide, confessed that Aristide “turned the country into a narco-country. It’s a one-man show. You either pay (Aristide) or you die”.[85] The BBC describes pyramid schemes, in which Haitians lost hundreds of millions in 2002, as the “only real economic initiative” of the Aristide years.”

Okay, so officials have been corrupt and have stolen hundreds of millions from the government over the years, but what about all the foreign aid that Haiti has received?

Foreign aid makes up approximately 30–40% of the national government’s budget. The largest donor is the US, followed by Canada and the European Union.[87] From 1990 to 2003, Haiti received more than $4 billion in aid.”

$4 billion might sound like a large amount of money, and it is, until you divide it by population.  Let’s assume the aid was spread out evenly over 13 years and that the population was, on average, 7.6 million.  That equates to $308 million per year, or $40.50 per person per year, which is about 1 month’s wages for most people in Haiti.  Could you rebuild your house on a sturdy earthquake proof foundation for $40 bucks, or even 1 month’s salary?  Or how about relocating to what might be a safer place (regardless of whether you can earn a living there)?

“In 2005 Haiti’s total external debt reached an estimated US$1.3 billion, which corresponds to a debt per capita of US$169. In September 2009, Haiti met the conditions set out by the IMF and World Bank‘s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries program to qualify for cancellation of its external debt. [94]

So until recently, the government was carrying debt equal to 18.7% of its 2008 GDP. That’s not a very strong base from which to run a deficit with large-scale public infrastructure projects.  To put it into comparison, the US’s record-high government debt is around 8% of GDP, only 43% of that of Haiti’s in % of GDP terms.

Who should rebuild Haiti?

Mr. Shirley states “I don’t know whose responsibility it is [to rebuild Haiti], either.  What I do know is that it is not the responsibility of the outside world to provide help.  [Ward’s note: which is basically saying it’s either Haiti’s responsibility or no ones.]  It’s nice if we do, but it is not a requirement, especially when people choose to influence their own existences negatively, whether by having too many children when they can’t afford them or by failing to recognize that living in a concrete bunker might not be the best way to protect one’s family, whether an earthquake happens or not.”

On the subject of family sizes in Haiti, for one thing, birth control is likely very inaccessible.  (If Mr. Shirley would then urge Haitians simply to not have sex, he would be severely overestimating the will power of all but a special class of human beings.)  Secondly, it may actually be in the economic self interest of Haitians to have large families (to say nothing of emotional self interests.)  Two thirds of Haitians support themselves by subsistence agriculture.  On a farm, more children equals free labor, so it may be rational for individual families to continue have larger families, despite their poverty.

Logically I can’t dispute whether or not better off people have a ‘requirement’ do help those much worse off.  Morally I disagree.  I believe those with way more money than they need to make them happy (the western world) has a strong moral imperative to better the conditions of those worse off.

How would you want the world to be if you were randomly placed in it?

There is a very simple thought experiment that I find helpful in defending the ideal that those with a lot should help those with a little.  Imagine that you were given a chance before birth to allocate all the resources in the world to various countries, regions, and peoples of the world.  You can do this however you want.  The catch is that afterwards, you will be randomly placed into that world population of about 6.5 billion.  Given income distribution in our world (as of the year 2000), you would have a 45% chance of living off less than $3/day (including a 23% chance of living off less than $2/day, the level that Haiti is at.)  2 out of 3 times you would be living off less than $14/day.  You would only have a 13% (1 in 8 ) chance of being relatively affluent & making at least $11,500 per year (1997 data), which is well below the poverty line for a family in the United States.  (The US median income per family is about $55,000 per year, making us extremely wealthy by worldwide standards.)

We live in a world where the richest 10% of the population owns 85% of its assets, and the poorest 50% owns 1%.  Would you choose to distribute resources as they are today, knowing that you’re most likely to live your life in incredible poverty (by US standards)?  Or would you choose to move things around a bit, giving yourself a chance to live comfortably no matter where you happen to be born?

Two times the wealth doesn’t equal two times the happiness

I would choose the latter, and I suspect many other people would as well for the following reason.  Pretend someone offers to let you flip a coin for your entire net worth.  If the coin lands heads, you double your wealth.  If it’s tails, you are utterly wiped out and have nothing: no house, no savings, no clothes/cars/iPhone etc.  Would you take the gamble?  I suspect 98% of Americans would not.  The reason?  Having twice as much wealth doesn’t bring us twice as much happiness.  The more money we make, the less valuable each dollar is to us.  Economists refer to this trait as being ‘risk averse.’  Losing what we already have hurts more than gaining an equivalent amount, so we pay for security in the form of insurance or diversified mutual funds.

Of course, in terms of the ‘where would you be born’ thought experiment, the results of birth misfortune are much more dire than simply losing your current wealth.   Not only do you have a 7/8 chance of making less than $11,500, you will likely lose your paths of opportunity to a better life: education, health, human rights, and physical security.


One issue I haven’t addressed is the proper incentive system for people, not just “ideal” wealth distribution.  If someone does something harmful to themselves, you want to discourage them from doing so again.  I’ve already explained why I believe the vast majority of impoverished Haitian’s are NOT very responsible for their fate, thus, it makes little sense to punish them by withholding aid.

Where possible to do so effectively, the US & private donors should definitely make an attempt to reform Haiti’s government and provide citizens with better opportunities to help themselves.  That being said, we can do a lot in the mean time.


In closing, I urge thinking people to avoid assigning blame to people in trouble simply because they have had the misfortune to be born in a different part of the world.  This is an easy trap to fall into because it absolves the blamer of all responsibility to help.  It is also easy to forget how incredibly privileged we are in western Europe & the United States.

Fortunately, judging from the roughly $1 billion in private donations from the American charities to Haiti, the vast majority of people are ignoring Mr. Shirley’s callous and faulty reasoning and donating however they can to help the Haiti relief effort.  If you haven’t already, I urge you to do the same.

“Of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences.”

– John Stuart Mill

5 thoughts on “UPDATE: Why We are Right to Rebuild Haiti or An Argument for Charity

  1. By no means am I supporting Mr. Shirley’s thoughts, opinions, and beliefs because I agree with your article Ward. Your article is well written and deflected a lot of Mr. Shirley’s points. However I agree with Mr. Shirley by changing up his words and saying that we (society) are sometimes too nice in this world. Natural selection (no offense mom, dad, and ancestors) should have taken my family out a long time ago because of our bad eye sight. There is no way my ancestors would have been able to spear fish with terrible eye sight. Technology and medical evolution has helped to pro-long life no matter how we are born today (for most cases I assume). Soon technology and medical advancements will get to the point where we will be able to prolong life by switching head off of a failing body (Thank you Mr. Rice). In defense to Mr. Shirley I kind of see where he’s coming from that the best case scenario is to let natural selection take its place for Haiti. If I had to guess if natural selection were to take its place through the past few centuries then a lot more people in ratio to total number of people would have good eyesight, less diabetes, and less heretic diseases because we would have all died off and not re-spawned faulty characteristics. Unfortunately if this were to happen, the caveman Uratsu clan or shall I say Ninja clan would unfortunately be doomed and I wouldn’t be able to write this response. Yes there is the lucky chance that someone like myself with hereditary defects (bad eye site, rashy skin, asthma) would come out as someone as awesome as myself who contributes to society, but there are the other cases such as in Haiti where if we were just meaner and let them die naturally then this Haiti issue either wouldn’t have happened or will not happen again. Naturally it is a bad place to live, unfortunately they live in a society where birth control is not an option, and they are poor. In a way they will be dead weight in the long-run and no one should live in Haiti. Granted I don’t know much about Haiti and a lot of this is hot air coming out of my mouth and I could sound dumb and/or ignorant, I am just saying that in the long-run it wouldn’t be bad for nature to take its course. As mean as it is to say, we (society) should not be so nice to people in certain instances because it will be better for the long-run. Can I make more examples? Probably, but then again there are probably lots of examples that go against my point, I am just saying how I feel. My last statement is that although one day I would like a little baby Uratsu, unfortunately through my genes my kid will probably have bad eye sight and possibly have asthma. If people like me did not exist long ago there is a chance that asthma would not have the chance to reproduce and although I am lucky that I am alive today, in a way it is bad because I am continuing to spawn bad characteristics (asthma and bad eye sight).

  2. @ Greg – I’m not sure how serious you are, but let me respond (in simple astonishment, not malice, I promise):

    1) Natural selection is a process that takes millions of years. To suggest that ‘in the last few hundred years’ the human race would be genetically different in a significant way if not for science & technology shows a gross misunderstanding of how quickly evolution works. Your assertions that problems such as ‘eyesite’, ‘diabetes’ etc would go away (or even be reduced at all) are utter nonsense.

    I am not an expert on biology or evolution, so I suggest you start with some of Stephen J. Gould’s works on the subject if you are interested in learning more.

    2) I am unable to think of how the world would be ‘better’ if we let ‘nature run its course’ and avoid using the resources we’ve developed over the past centuries to help humanity. Apparently, letting massive numbers of people die painfully due to say, natural disaster or disease, has a silver lining in your book in that it ‘cleanses’ the gene pool. (Look up ‘eugenics’ and ‘Hitler’ if you would like to learn about kindred philosophers.)

    As noted above, none of these tragedies will change the genetic characteristics of humans for millions of years. I suspect science & technology have alleviated (and caused) more human suffering to more humans that nature ever has.

    3) Your suggestion that if humans evolved sufficiently situations “in Haiti where if we were just meaner and let them die naturally then this Haiti issue either wouldn’t have happened or will not happen again” is ludicrous. You seem to be operating under two blatantly false assumptions: A) that humans will soon evolve to be able to withstand huge cement blocks falling on them and B) that Haitian DNA is fundamentally different from rest-of-the-world DNA in a way that allowed this tragedy happen.

    4) You’ve missed the point entirely about Paul Shirley’s article, which you claim to be supporting. Shirley expresses no concern over ‘natural selection’.

    Instead, I believe he is worried about economic incentives, and is claiming that the Haitians had full control over averting this catastrophe, did nothing, and therefore should not be ‘rewarded’ with aid because it will make them fall victim again, whereas otherwise they would alter their behavior to avoid future disasters. (As I described in my article, I believe this is a bogus argument.)

    • Ward,

      Everyone has their opinion and that’s fine. Here are my finer points to the asthma and eye site for the past couple hundred years. Let’s say instead of the millions of years we take a couple thousand of years from today (taking out technology and medical advancements).

      If we were all out naked in nature, a lot of the people with hereditary negative characteristics would be taken out naturally and the strongest would survive. The human life for argument sake will last say 70 years (an arbitrary number). I am assuming that people with bad eye sight such as myself will die before reaching that number and reproducing by natural selection, therefore taking out the chance of spawning more humans with bad eye sight where the general population of good eye sight can thrive because better eye sight means better survival (like I said if there are no lights, technology, medicine, basically we’re Fred Flintstone). So in a couple thousand of years (rather than millions) only the good genes would survive through natural selection. The millions of year’s quote that you are making might be toward evolution where it may take millions of years for say a white snake in a dark environment to evolve into darker skinned snakes. So yes you’re right we would not be genetically different after hundreds if not thousands of years with say good eye sight because that would take millions of years of evolution, we can however cheat time and have natural selection give the general public good eye sight in thousands if not hundreds of years by making the weak with bad eye sight die naturally. This is the same with diabetes (at least I think it’s hereditary) and anything else that is hereditary (asthma) or can be hereditary like aids (unlike asthma you can also get it without being born with it). Let the weak die and let the strong reproduce, that was my point in natural selection. This has nothing to do with Haiti and more with your #1 argument.

      Now let’s talk about Haiti’s location. Let’s go off tangent and say if the earth were to blow up it would make no sense to move to say Venus or mars because it’s too close to the sun and we would roast. I don’t know where the most logical place is, but I am just going to say the moon because the environment is more livable than mars or Venus. If someone wants to try and live on mars then cool go ahead, but if your town burns up then it makes no sense to send packages and money to them. As cold as it sounds, just like Haiti it is location location location. Yes it is bad luck that they live in an area that gets huge earthquakes and it isn’t as beautiful as Hawaii, that’s life and yes it sucks. But naturally it seems like people shouldn’t live in an area that can be destroyed by nature. If no one lived there then there can be as many earthquakes or typhoons, or tsunami’s or any other natural disaster there and we wouldn’t care.

      With your argument in #2 I agree that we should be “using the resources we’ve developed over the past centuries to help humanity.” However, it may not be the best use of resource for Haiti because of their location. We may be able to re-build Haiti and make it into a cash driven vacation spot, or structure the government and their system to where they become a social powerhouse economically, but in the long-run it may not be the best idea. Why spend all your time and money into building something when it can fall? That’s like saving all your money over time, investing it wisely, and then when you’re about to retire putting it all on black on a game of roulette. Yes you can come out Huge in the end like Haiti has the chance to, but there’s the chance that all that work and dedication will be gone. Then you’re screwed and it’s sad to think that the money you just lost could have gone to something better (your own family, your families future, schools, anything than the casino).

      Ward like I said I don’t support Shirley’s article but I see where he’s coming from. I skewed his article and maybe instead of saying I am skewing his view I will say this is my point of view of natural selection. By all means I could write an article on the good that there is in supporting the Haiti and now Chile relief efforts. Although I haven’t donated it is not because I support Shirley or myself, I’ve just been lazy, I will call myself out. Yes your point is focusing on relief and that it is not Haiti’s fault. I know from your article that there are politics involved and history involved getting Haiti to where they are. Those were all very good points and my little blurb and Shirley’s blurb strays away from the national focus and point of the relief efforts. I am not arguing with what you’re saying, or am I arguing or commending Shirley, I am just putting forth my opinion. Did anyone ask for it? No, and if you want to delete it then cool. I am just saying I can kind of see where Shirley is coming from in having a negative attitude towards the Haiti relief.

  3. @ Greg – On evolution: In the nearsightedness example, consider that evolution is about reproducing. If a person can reproduce before dying, their genes pass on. Chances are, having poor eyesight will not keep our ‘natural man’ from reproducing during his teen years. Plus, in agrarian societies there are things a nearsighted person can do besides, say, hunting. He could grind grain, harvest crops, etc. There is no reason to suspect that nearsightedness would be eradicated in a ‘state of nature’ (and strong evidence that it wasn’t, since we have it in abundance today!)

    On Haiti living in a disaster-prone area: Although natural disasters surely hamper Haiti, I don’t believe they are the root cause of the problem (although I would hire an industrial engineer to track this root cause down for sure.) Los Angeles has plenty of natural disasters including earthquakes & wildfires. However, no one suggests Angelinos all move elsewhere because America has the infrastructure to combat such problems.

    I think the question you would want to answer is ‘would it be more expensive to move the entire Haitian population to another country’ or ‘build up Haiti such that it can withstand such natural disasters in the future?’ The third option would be ‘let Haiti suffer’. Personally, that last option is too ‘expensive’ in the value of human life for me, but others may disagree. I would guess the ‘move everyone out’ option is also prohibitively costly (it also begs the question, where would they go? Incidentally, this is one reason why I support a liberal immigration policy for the US.)

    You make a strong point when you ask if Haiti is the best place for our money due to the hardships they face. That is a tough question to answer, as one could make a case for instead helping, say, a sub-Saharan African country that’s just as poor, but maybe has better prospects. Ideally, prosperous nations like ourselves would give much more, both privately & publicly*, so as to improve the lot of ALL dirt-poor nations. As it is, charitable dollars are scarce, so allocation of them to where they’ll do the most good is indeed very important.

    That being said, I think all of us can easily find more money to send abroad when really pressed to in the event of a major crisis like the Haiti quake. For my wife & me, giving to Haiti was not part of our ‘planned’ giving, so it didn’t feel like we were making a choice with dollars earmarked for somewhere else. If you feel that your dollars could be spent better on other poor people who need them, I would encourage you to spend there instead (as opposed to not donating anything to anyone just because you’re pessimistic about them doing any good in Haiti.)

    * Foreign aid as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) given by the US government was ~10% some 40-50 years ago. When Americans are asked how much should be spent on foreign aid, their replies typically range from 1-5% of GDP. In actuality, the US spends only about 0.5% of GDP on foreign aid today. (Source: ‘The Progress Paradox’, a very interesting book by Gregg Easterbrook.)

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