February 23, 2010| 0

The Role of Aid in Times of National Disaster

David Brooks offers well-written, often insightful commentary from a conservative perspective through his column in The New York Times. In his recent column on Haiti and aid “The Underlying Truth,” January 14, 2010, however, he missed the mark in what may seem like a minor way with major consequences.

Here is my summary of his argument. The recent 7.0 earthquake in Haiti brings to mind the 7.0 earthquake in San Francisco from 1997. By comparison, tens of thousands have died in Haiti compared with 63 dead in San Francisco. Poorly constructed buildings in Haiti made up the difference, leading to the conclusion that “what happened to Haiti was not a natural disaster. It was a result of poverty.”

This leads to his next argument: We are not very good at addressing poverty issues in other countries. Aid can be provided year after year, but poor and corrupt countries remain poor and corrupt. Aid breeds dependence. The only way out of this horrible cycle must come from within the culture and the country — not from others offering solutions to the problem.

There is a strong element of truth to Brook’s argument. The devastation of Haiti was vastly greater than in San Francisco. And the record of outsiders transforming nations through aid is poor indeed. Even aid from within a country doesn’t necessarily lead to nation building.

The Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to Muhammad Yunus for his pioneering work in microfinance starting in the late 1970s in Bangladesh, and it is reasonable to ask in what way this has transformed the country after so many years. Bangladesh remains a poor and corrupt country. Nation transformation remains an extremely difficult task that no one is very good at. Haiti, for all of the aid it has received over the years, remains discouragingly poor and corrupt.

But despite these good insights from Brooks, his general conclusions are deceptively and deeply misleading, I believe.

The first minor problem comes in the beginning. All 7.0 earthquakes are not created equal. Seismologists will tell us that the damage on the surface depends both on the quake’s severity (measured on the Richter scale) and its location relative to the surface to the earth. There is no doubt that earthquake protection for buildings was much better in San Francisco than in Port au Prince. But the drama of the comparison may be distorted.

This small problem is compounded by his absolute statement: “This is not a natural disaster. It is a poverty disaster.” Clearly what happened in San Francisco was a natural disaster and so was what happened in Haiti. But for Haiti it is a “both and” and not an “either or.”

Small point, you say? Not really. The discussion on aid is built on the premise that this is only a disaster in poverty. If it is both, then things get messier, since we have to talk about helping at the time of natural disaster as well. Brooks can avoid this side of the argument by pursuing his rationale.

Brook’s reasoning continues to weaken. Aid isn’t helpful because it doesn’t ultimately do any good, he argues. We are treating the symptoms rather than the root cause. Aid is decidedly ineffective at nation building.

But that is not all that is being done with aid. Aid has another important role. It offers compassion and help to someone in a broken condition. It helps that individual, if only for a short time. It relieves misery.

We can think of aid playing the role of the emergency room in health care. At times of extreme hardship, the emergency room is the vital lifeline for those who are in need. Sometimes the emergency room is misused. People don’t take care of themselves, don’t (or can’t) go to the doctor, and wind up there because of their own (or their parents’) poor behavior. That is not the time for a lecture, but the time for compassion.

Yes, root causes need to be addressed, and we need much more effective ways of doing this. And maybe addressing root causes in broken nations will only happen when good people in those nations rise up to lead to a different way. But we also need to show compassion to those in need, not expecting this will solve the bigger problem any more than emergency room care will get a patient on the track to a healthy lifestyle.

I would not accuse Brooks of mean-spiritedness, though I think the timing of his column was not so good. But the problems I have pointed out are rooted in what I think is a bigger issue in the dialogue in our public square. Both sides in the myriad of difficult 21st century issues in society tend to polarize around one position or another. We too often want to say “this OR that” rather than finding a solution recognizing “this AND that.”

Christians in particular ought to be more empathetic towards others in need. We should recognize ourselves as forgiven. We should recognize many of us have been born in a place of privilege, at least by comparison with most people in the world. There can’t be much arrogance here. Let’s agree with Brooks that the real solutions in Haiti are long, difficult, and uncertain.

But that is not the issue on the table at the moment.

Al Erisman is an Executive in Residence at Seattle Pacific University

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