It belabors the obvious to say that Haiti is a mess. I was there for the one-year anniversary of the January 12, 2010, earthquake and can verify the reports of how little has been done to put the shattered capital, Port-au-Prince, back together again.
The overall look of the downtown area is something akin to the aerial film footage that the Allies took of bombed-out German cities in the summer of 1945, but with smoldering mounds of garbage and about 1.5 million homeless people added in for that unique, Third-world effect.
While the damage f ro m the earthquake, poverty, homelessness, and disease is grievous, this is only a symptom of the country’s underlying problems of class hatred, racial tension, and pervasive corruption.
Unfortunately, the Haitian government is making things worse in an attempt to use the crisis to further divide and control the populace. The nation’s rulers stuff ballot boxes, “lose” electoral results f ro m entire districts, and maintain rent-a-mobs to “demonstrate” for or against this or that. In addition to the corruption, the Haitian government is so inept that it recently allowed the deposed and notoriously ruthless dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier back into the country — a move that jeopardized its fragile presidential elections and made it the laughingstock of the Caribbean.
Decade after decade, like an intervention that never ends, the United States continues to give aid to the Haitian government. For the past 13 years, we have sent a yearly average of $100 million in state aid, a number that jumped to almost $300 million in 2009 and 2010.
The question Americans are asking is a good one: Is there any amount of money that can be poured into Haiti to fix the poorest country in the Western hemisphere? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Haiti is broken — completely broken, f ro m the top down — and no amount of funding can fix that.
What might possibly work is a bottom-up approach — one that undermines the Haitian problem of poverty by undermining its state sponsorship.
For all the romanticized accounts of Haiti’s origins, a slave colony that ejected its French masters to set its people free, the country is what it has always been: a socialist state in which the government, not the individual, decides what is in the best interest of each person. The statists in Haiti, those who constitute the perpetual ruling class, make up about 4 percent of the population and control roughly 70 percent of the wealth, which includes most of the land.
The earthquake of 2010 revealed not only the impotence of the Haitian state but also the fact that nearly 20 percent of its citizens own nothing at all. This disparity — this lack of access to property and the economic leverage it allows — is an enormous weight on the shoulders of Haiti’s poor. So fixed is the system that without cash to grease the skids, it takes an average of 683 days to register a property with the state. To purchase land f ro m the state, which owns most of the island, takes five years and some 65 bureaucratic steps. Even Donald Trump would be hard-pressed to make it in such an environment.
Enter organizations like Food for the Poor (FFP). This U.S.-based, non-governmental organization (NGO) — one of the largest in the United States — has come to understand that the key to permanently undoing poverty in Haiti is private property. And to get around the suffocating, bureaucratic fog that is the Haitian state, FFP has developed an ingenious strategy.
By partnering with the Catholic Church in Haiti, specifically with select bishops, FFP organizes the sale of Church land to otherwise destitute rural Haitian communities. To buy a plot of land f ro m the Church — one large enough for a house or a farm — Haitians must bring whatever monies they can to the table, plus loads of sweat-equity. They must dig the foundations and help build the houses that will, when complete, sit on a parcel of land that they own. With this land, and the equitable properties that sit on it, they now have collateral to borrow money for seeds, farming equipment, or even the creation of something like a small-scale fish farm in an otherwise unproductive plot.
With the help of Clement Belizaire, Project Director for FFP in Haiti, I was able to tour the village of Gros Chodye (which literally means “Big Cauldron”), deep in the heart of the Artibonite region. There, despite the fact that Artibonite was the epicenter of the cholera epidemic, I met poor but economically stable Haitians who told me that, thanks to the sturdy block houses that FFP helped them build and own, they are safer f ro m storms, snakes, and disease, as well as being removed a considerable distance from the economic destitution that runs throughout Haitian society.
“That private property, the right to own and control it, is the key to eliminating poverty should be obvious, especially to Americans,” Belizaire told me. “Access to credit, that is the ability to borrow against what you own or might produce, is the engine of the U.S. economy. Why don’t more Americans understand that the same is true in Haiti?” he asked me.
It’s a good question, because private property is the key to economic prosperity. Regardless of its good intentions or the euphemism it goes by — health-care reform, stimulus, and so on — redistribution of wealth always pushes a nation’s overall prosperity in a negative direction.
This point was anticipated by St. Thomas Aquinas. In the second half of his Summa Theologica, he took up the issue of private property in question 66, “Concerning Theft and Robbery.” After listing a series of pros and cons concerning the question, Aquinas concluded that private property is not only man’s natural right but creates a more orderly society — one in which each person is motivated to see to his responsibilities by way of taking care of something that is his own. In other words, one is more likely to be bothered that something does not work — whether equipment, services, business, or even governance — when one owns part of it.
Most of Haiti, by contrast, stands as a stark example of the failure of statism and the resulting consequences of blocking the individual from participating in the benefits and the risks of guiding his own future. In attacking the true source of poverty, FFP is onto something. Americans would be wise to join them in their efforts, both in Haiti and in our own country.