The lesson of Haiti is we need faster global economic growth

15 01 2010

The truly dreadful events in Haiti are the product of an unavoidable natural event. Earthquakes are not something that can be prevented. But what is preventable is the huge impact they can have on people who are affected by them.

The earthquake had a magnitude of 7 and the devastation and loss of life are enormous. However, two similar sized earthquakes in California within the past 30 years had the following effects;

The last major earthquake in the state occurred in the Northridge section of Los Angeles in 1994. The magnitude 6.7 earthquake damaged freeways, killed at least 70 people and did $20 billion in damage. On the evening of Oct. 17, 1989, a 6.9 magnitude quake hit the San Francisco and Monterey Bay regions. The 10-15 second tremor left 63 dead, more than 3,700 injured and thousands homeless.

Bad as these effects were, they is no comparison with the damage currently being inflicted on the Haitians. The reason for this differential impact is very simple. California is a wealthy, advanced state which has invested huge amounts in earthquake proofing buildings, bridges and public spaces. Haiti is a wretchedly impoverished country which has invested next to nothing.

Reaction to the earthquake in the west has focused on the need for aid, both as a short-term solution and a longer term one to the problems of Haitian society. However well-intentioned this may be, nothing short of a major transformation of the economy of poor countries such as Haiti can prevent natural disasters of this type creating disproportionate suffering.

The  depth of the  problems facing Haiti is fully revealed by the inability of aid donors to reach those who need help. Haiti has only one tiny airport which has meant that aid by air has had to be turned away. Its port, unprotected from the effects of earthquake, is blocked making shipping aid in impossible. Its infrastructure is primitive and its social services inadequate. Helping the injured and homeless can only have  a very temporary positive impact on the lives of the Haitians.

The plight of Haiti should be remembered by those who advocate slowing down global economic growth or making it more ‘sustainable’. Haitians can only ever look forward to relief from poverty when growth in the global economy has enebled poor countries to develop. Many of Haiti’s problems originated from its past as a French colony. Like many third world countries its economy has been distorted and exploited by more powerful western countries over the centuries. This imbalance of power can only ever be addressed through economic development, rising living standards and concomitant social and political progress.

The clear lesson of Haiti, and the many other poor regions unnecessarily afflicted by natural disasters, is that we should reject calls for limits on global economic growth. We in the west cannot in all conscience refuse the poor of the undeveloped world the same rights to a decent life that we enjoy.



9 responses

18 01 2010

are you serious? Haitia has been denied the right to develop economically first by its debt obiligations from Indepedence that took over 150years to pay back to France. And then US national policies that over the last 50yr deinsdutrialised the country and supported coups, structural adjustment, deforestation, trade embargos, drug transhipment and much else.

Read your history please. transformation of the economy of a poor country such as Haiti has been denied purposely for two centuries.

the lesson of haiti is that modern capitalism is built on slavery and colonialism. most poor countries are poor because of these legacies. The ‘developed’ societies of Europe and the US certainly are.

What is needed is a more social minded and ethnical form of capitalism because the current system increases economic inequalities both within and between countries.

21 01 2010
Thomas Hürlimann

I do support your comment. The idea of capitalism is not that bad, but like anything thats done in excess, it has turned into something bad. It needs to be regulated. But fear of loss, egoism and greed, mainly bemong politicians, work against it. We have to change anyway or nature will make us change or simply terminate our species.

18 01 2010
Tim B.


Applause 🙂

Haiti was in my youth considered a tropical paradise. Put a “growth” price on that.

19 01 2010

I think you also have to remember that many third world countries are third world due to their climate, number of natural disasters etc. etc.

It’s no coincidence that the most powerful nations in the world have mostly “boring” climates and very few natural disasters making it easier to grow things and build things etc.

That’s not to say I disagree with the other issues but I would suggest this has just kept them third world for longer and is because they were less developed in the first place due to the above.

The disaster is terrible and really makes you think about how fragile life can be.

20 01 2010
Florian Bay

It is very naïve to use debt and colonialism as an excuse for under developpement. South Korea was in the 1950s one of the most under developped countries on Earth, with no infrastructure, no industries and a land ravaged by two wars. Yet it is now a developped country on par with Britain, France and the like?
Haïti could have achieved exactly the same provided of course that political leadership and a the rule of the law had been implemented. Under the leadership of the Duvaliers, Papa Doc and Baby Doc marked by corrumption, legalised extortion and a repession based on voodou principles, thousands of educated professionals left their country in disgust for the United States, Canada and the like. I am sure that we will both agree that such an environment is highly detrimental to the birth of an economic miracle.

21 01 2010
Thomas Hürlimann

I strongly disagree. We have to learn to think globally. Economic growth leads into even more desaster, because it is always the rich countries/people who make the profit, on cost of poor countries/people like Haiti. Growth does not come from nowhere, there is only as much as there is on this planet. Growth in one country is nothing else then bad distribution, it means somewhere else there is loss.

29 01 2010
Jim Bonner

What complete nonsense. Economic development is not a zero sum game: growth in global GDP over the last thousand years is testament to that.

The author is right: a well-developed economy can manage the effects of natural disasters much better than Haiti could.

Haiti currently needs significant amounts of aid. But once it’s back on its feet it needs to be responsible for its own economic development. That means:
1. Developing institutions in education, politics, healthcare, and law that provide the foundations for its economy
2. Putting in place the right infrastructure to allow its economy and society to function effectively, and
3. Developing industries whose products it can trade with other countries

Global economic growth and international free trade is key to this third point, but the extent to which Haiti will benefit depends on it addressing points #1 and #2.

21 01 2010
Ekaterina Mitiaev

Correction: according to a range of sources, the damage from the Northridge earthquake was $20 billion and not $20 million (

And I do completely agree with the article – there is no doubt that industrial development significantly reduces the impact of natural disasters. This current obsession with mitigation of human impact on the nature will do nothing to prevent future disasters but it will hamper the development of modern infrastructure that could have saved tens of thousands of lives.

So I do wonder what is the actual underlying commitment of the West?..

9 12 2011

After all the attempts made to assist Haiti, it has reverted back corruption, squalor and lawlessness as soon as they are left to govern themselves.
No matter how much money is poured into certain places, it will not advance. Blame it on the Haitians as they’ve had ample opportunity to flourish.
Look at the Dominican Republic, why are they able to self govern and have take care of themselves?

I suggest you read “The Lessons of Haiti.” Perhaps that will provide you the answers you may not find elsewhere.

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