We highlighted David Brooks' column
on the Haiti quake aftermath this morning, and since then it has become
clear the New York Times columnist stands out in discussing the
lessons of the devastation in Haiti. Brooks argues that, at its core,
what's happening in Haiti "is not a natural disaster story. This is a
poverty story." The weak infrastructure and social services are, after
all, what made the toll so severe compared to other earthquakes
of similar magnitude. Reflecting on President Obama's pledge to aid
Haiti, Brooks writes, "he is going to have to use this tragedy as an
occasion to rethink our approach to global poverty." But that may not
be so simple.
Poverty, like the earthquake that struck Haiti, is not easily solved or prevented by policy. Driven by complex social and political forces, we cannot simply "tackle poverty by throwing money at it," Brooks writes. Many liberals, such as Matthew Yglesias, may disagree with Brooks's conclusion, believing that policy and donations can ameliorate at least some symptoms of poverty, such as disease and malnutrition. But whether he's right or wrong about poverty, Brooks raised a debate few others considered.
The first of those truths is that we don’t know how to use aid to reduce poverty. Over the past few decades, the world has spent trillions of dollars to generate growth in the developing world. The countries that have not received much aid, like China, have seen tremendous growth and tremendous poverty reductions. The countries that have received aid, like Haiti, have not.
In the recent anthology “What Works in Development?,” a group of economists try to sort out what we’ve learned. The picture is grim. There are no policy levers that consistently correlate to increased growth. There is nearly zero correlation between how a developing economy does one decade and how it does the next. There is no consistently proven way to reduce corruption. Even improving governing institutions doesn’t seem to produce the expected results.