Steve Hilton- Cameron’s strategy Brain – sends regular baffling Strategy Bulletins to Conservative candidates and MPs, as part of their education. In October, he wrote:
4. David Brooks – a brilliant exponent of progressive Conservatism
If you haven’t come across his work before, it’s really worth checking out David Brooks in the New York Times. While he writes on American politics, he often captures the essence of what we’re all about here.
Not many writers would have the courage to use a tragic event like a 50,000-fatality earthquake to volubly address the problem of nonwhite laziness and why it sometimes makes natural disasters seem timely, but then again, David Brooks isn’t just any writer.
What does Brooks say? Well, the jist is:
“This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.”
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.
it is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty . . . Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.
We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.
This is uncomfortable territory, for sure. I don’t side with a version of history taken by the Left, that has every under-developed country suffering that state because of the world capitalist system (google Immanual Wallerstein if you want a version of this). Culture clearly does matter; read the genuinely brilliant and liberal Tyler Cowen on why Haiti is so poor, and note how many of the issues he raises are cultural/institutional – and he is a man with a long history of visiting the place.
How a country develops culturally, in particular in relation to its economic institutions, is a complex, historically-determined thing. Path-dependence abounds; ex-colonies have often struggled to develop because of a distorted social structure left by colonialism, and the environmental consequences of poverty (such as Haiti’s deforestation) can have other lasting consequences. This long essay is testimony to the complexity of the issues. The separate question of the blame, justice and desert for Haiti’s poverty are similarly tangled; whose fault is it that they had Papa and Baby Doc?
But it is hard to know what to think of people who take this moment as their opportunity to lambast the idea of international aid, and assert the superiority of our Western values. Haiti’s disaster is on an unimaginable scale; a likely death toll nearing that of the tsunami, which hit countries with a population tens of times higher. You have to go back to the First World War to find a similar tragedy in Britain – a loss of 2% of the population. Why on earth is this the time to bring up these issues? If the intention is to stall the flow of aid, then it is worse than dumb. As Taibbi writes:
Again, unlike Brooks, I actually lived in the Third World for ten years and I admit it — I’m not exactly in the habit of sending checks to Abkhazian refugees, mainly because I’m not interested in buying some local Russian gangster a new Suzuki Samurai to tool around Sochi in . . . But you know what? Next time there’s an earthquake in Russia or Georgia, I’m probably going to wait at least until they’re finished pulling the bodies of dead children out of the rubble before I start writing articles blasting a foreign people for being corrupt, lazy drunks with an unsatisfactorily pervasive achievement culture
So, for Steve Hilton: is David Brooks’ decision to question the wisdom of foreign aid at this timea good example of “capturing the essence of what we’re about here’? I wonder what a straw poll of Tory candidates would reveal about their attitudes to giving to Haiti?
Hat-tip: Brad DeLong.