Feb
23

Travesty in Haiti

I cannot recall where or how I was directed to "Travesty in Haiti: A True Account of Christian Missions, Orphanages, Food Aid, Fraud and Drug Trafficking" (2008) by Timothy Schwartz. The book appears to be self-published, and Paul Farmer is quoted on the back as saying "This book knocks it out of the park" (assuming that is the Paul Farmer, who better to speak on a book about Haiti and the NGO sector?). The author spent ~10 years in Haiti, for graduate school research and then consulting work in the NGO sector. This is an academic book, and closer to a reflective personal history as well as quasi-expose of the aid industry. The personal stories make it an engaging and easy read. There are some errors here and there. For anyone seeking out a reality check on the non-profit sector, this is the book. One lengthy note:

"...beneath the surface it was a fiasco. Massive reforestation projects had consumed millions of dollars but when I investigated they turned out to be decades long failures. Irrigation projects meant for the poor turned out, when I investigated, to be owned by congressmen and senators, doctors and nurses, engineers, and lawyers, some of whom were living in the United States. I could tell about a dike that became a dam and caused flooding and about a dam built at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars but that with the first heavy torrent snapped like a stick. I could tell about roads the NGOs built that became massive gullies. About twenty years and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on BIGs (Bio Intensive Gardens that are small, highly productive vegetable gardens) that the peasants never paid the slightest bit of attention to but into which CARE International went right on pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars of aid. I could tell about a massive seed project in which, despite the fact that the Jean Makout rainy season is only three months, the NGO agronomists distributed long season seed varieties, causing the peasants who accepted and planted the seeds to lose their harvests, to be driven deeper into poverty, and I could then tell how the project was continued for four more years, how the peasants instead of planting the seeds took to soaking them to remove the pesticides and then ate them. I could tell about hundreds of barefoot doctors trained to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars and two years of effort, but when we tried to hire them for the survey, we found only five of whom could accurately take a pulse. I could tell about networks of local agricultural extension agents who are even more poorly trained, about the United Nation's million dollar fishing projects that were flops as well: Smoking pits going unused gran neg (political bosses) commandeering refrigerators and solar panels meant for the storage of lobster, motor powered fiberglass boats that never went to sea for any other reason than joyriding and sightseeing when local and visiting VIP's could afford The US$2 per gallon for gasoline. I could tell about all these failed projects and most bizarre of all I could tell the same stories several times over for they have been repeated in Jean Makout and throughout Haiti for over half a century the same projects, often in the same places, and always with the same result, failure." (p. 70-71) 

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Jun
16

China's Gilded Age

China's Gilded Age (2020) by Yuen Yuen Ang is an accessible read that is well worth reading for multiple reasons. The book advances theoretical understandings on corruption and poverty, it presents creative methodologies that could inspire all sorts of new research, and presents unique findings that explain how China sustained high levels of economic growth alongside pervasive corruption. Ang also wrote the excellent book How China Escaped the Poverty Trap (2016).

A few notes (three long quotes, key arguments from the book):

"The durability and gigantic scale of Chinese economic expansion, juxtaposed with reports of "rising"and "explosive"corruption, cannot simply be brushed away by assertions of imminent collapse, even amid the current slowdown. How China has come this far –from an impoverished communist regime to a capitalist superpower rivaling the United States, despite a crisis of corruption that its leadership sees as "grave"and "shocking"–must be explained. This is the task of my book." (p. 5)

"Through an "unbundled"approach, my study draws a clear distinction between the quantity and quality of corruption. Wealthy economies may have low quantities of aggregate corruption, as measured by standard cross-national indices, but it doesn't mean that they have no corruption; rather, their corruption may be of a different quality –concentrated in access money, which is difficult to capture and not immediately growth-retarding. Contrary to popular beliefs, the rise of capitalism was not accompanied by the eradication of corruption, but rather by the evolution of the quality of corruption from thuggery and theft toward sophisticated exchanges of power and profit. Compared with countries that prospered earlier, China is still a relative newcomer on this evolutionary path... Why has China prospered alongside vast corruption? I offer a four-part explanation. First, the dominant type of corruption in China is access money –elite exchanges of power and wealth –rather than petty bribery or outright theft... access money may actually raise private investment –and even spur over-investment, as seen in China's real estate sector –thereby increasing growth, at least until the onset of a crisis." (p. 14)

"One of the most intractable problems of development is the trap of "corruption-causing-poverty-causing-corruption." In other words, countries are poor because they are corrupt, and they are corrupt because they are poor... The scholarly literature poses two solutions to this problem. The first is to "skip straight to Weber" by replicating the best practices of first-world public administration in developing countries. Pay is too low? Raise it. Bureaucracy is overstaffed? Slash it. Petty corruption is rampant? Vow to punish it. Although these measures appear correct in principle, in practice they routinely fail and may even backfire, raising administrative costs and undermining public sector morale. The second solution, as Fisman and Golden underscore, is to "trigger a change in social norms." Social norms are important, and muck-raking journalism and public protests can help citizens hold corrupt elites accountable. But norms cannot fill empty stomachs. Poorly paid bureaucrats often steal, extort, or moonlight in order to subsist. Reform-era China charted an unusual pathway out of this vicious cycle. Its solution was to allow street-level bureaucrats to extract some payments to top up their paltry formal salaries, while also aligning their financial incentives with long-term economic development objectives. Essentially, the state applied a profit-sharing model to the communist bureaucracy." (p. 85-86) 


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Jul
19

Power tends to corrupt...

Fiction (1945):

  • "...out from the door of the farmhouse came a long file of pigs, all walking on their hind legs...out came Napoleon himself, majestically upright, casting haughty glances from side to side, and with his dogs gambolling round him. He carried a whip in his trotter. There was a deadly silence. Amazed, terrified, huddling together, the animals watched the long line of pigs march slowly round the yard. It was as though the world had turned upside-down." (George Orwell, Animal Farm)

History (1988):

  • "At the beginning of the Revolution all of us had utterly rejected anything to do with the past. We would no longer drive cars, or wear suits; neckties were considered criminal. Anything that made you look well-off or bourgeois, anything that smacked of affluence or sophistication, we scorned as part of the old order. Then, around 1978, all that began to change. Designer clothes from the best European tailors were the uniform of all senior government officials and members of the Military Council. We had the best of everything: the best homes, the best cars, the best whiskey, champagne, food. It was a complete reversal of the ideals of the Revolution." (Dawit Wolde Girgos, Red Tears)

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