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.

I wonder what Steve Hilton would think of David Brooks’ thoughts on Haiti’s plight? Matt Taibbi takes up the commentary:

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.


6 thoughts on “David Brooks – is this the time ‘look to Haiti’s culture for the real problems’ –

  1. “I don’t side with a version of history taken by the Left,”

    This sentence needs to read:

    “I don’t side with a version of history taken by some of the Left,”


    Also, did you know Steve Hilton is
    a) the inspiration for that annoying bald guy in The Thick of It


    b) was arrested after Tory Party conference for abusing staff at a station, and received an £80 fine and a criminal record?

    No joke:

  2. Unless I’m missing something, this seems more than bit unfair (especially your headline) to:

    a) to Steve Hilton. I’m not sure exactly what he’s got to do with this story, other than referencing once one of the world’s most popular columnists. Danny Finkelstein does the same all the time too.

    b) David Brooks. He’s not blaming Haiti. Most of his column is about the Easterly message, how complicated aid is. From that perspective, I don’t really see much difference than with what Tyler Cowen is saying. When we’re about (rightly) to pour billions into helping the country, what better time is there exactly to start debating what approach we should be using?

    1. Re-reading the column, I think ‘blame haitiians” IS a bit strong, though I am still slightly amazed by Brooks’ timing, and think it is fair to point out Hilton’s endorsement of him – I know that I am not alone in getting occasionally amazed by Brooks (see Thomas Frank). My reaction is as nothing compared to Taibbi’s, by the way

      I’m changing the title. thanks.

      1. Thanks Giles – that seems much more fair.

        Yeah, I did see the Taibbi thing – and thought paraphrasing Brooks as “Haitians are a bunch of lazy niggers who can’t keep their dongs in their pants” was grossly unfair. I just have an instinctive dislike to that kind of partisanship – t’s hard to keep reasoned debate between right and left when that kind of thing gets thrown around

  3. So if this is not the time when was/will it be?

    Since Haiti was de facto run by UN agencies rather than its “government” the failure of such seems well displayed today. Of course the best thing we could do for underdeveloped countries is pulling out of the EU & its food tariff regime.

  4. Neil: surely not now. The mind boggles at how massive a tragedy this is. The equivalent for the UK would be 1m dead, 5m homeless. Imagine that, and then imagine if 2 weeks later commentary moved over to our deepercultural failings.

    I’ve read & been influenced by Easterly – & thought I gave reasonable credence to the ‘culturalist’ view. That said, i wonder how the great British traditions of fair dealing and entrepreneurship would survive such circumstances . . .

    Finally, i think it is a fair & interesting question what Conservative candidates would think. On other questions – climate change – they are to the Right of Cameron. Are they thinking what he’s thinking?

    Jonathan – I agree on Taibbi’s shock-approach – I sometimes envy his ability to be so unapologetically rude!

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