A Kinder, Gentler Disaster Capitalism

I suppose comparisons between the situation in Haiti after the earthquake and the situation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were inevitable. The weird and almost comical arrival of George W. Bush on the scene of the Haiti relief efforts was sure to invite the comparison. But you wouldn’t expect it from people who have been to Haiti, or worked there; and that’s why I was surprised to find the comparison in an opinion piece by Eve Blossom on The Huffington Post.

Blossom is a “social entrepreneur,” a textile importer with a social conscience, and her for-profit company, Lulan Artisans, has done business in Haiti. Or, more precisely: Lulan had started “initial partnerships with a few cooperatives” to bring artisanal goods from Haiti to “a prominent U.S. retailer,” but those plans were interrupted by the earthquake, and many of the artisans who would have benefited from these partnerships are missing and among the dead; their workshops are, as Blossom puts it, “decimated.”

For Blossom, there is another side to the disaster in Haiti: an opportunity to get the country on a more sustainable economic path and to rebuild infrastructure. She is not the only one so far to advance this line of argument. Former Bush administration official Stephen Johnson made a similar call last week in a Wall Street Journal piece advocating “Haitianization of the recovery” and a role for the Haitian American middle class (which would not be without political consequences in Haiti). Blossom would no doubt reject the comparison; but in this article, at least, she advocates what can only be called a kinder, gentler disaster capitalism. Which brings me to the passage that tripped me up:

At Lulan, we find by going into communities, celebrating local skills in the culture, partnering with men and women artisans, paying fair wage and connecting them to a larger marketplace, the artisans become more than self-sufficient. They become savvy marketers who run successful businesses. Such people are more equipped to recover from natural disasters.

With stable incomes, access to savings and credit, marketable job skills, job training and control of resources, people can better withstand disaster interruptions.

Is this disaster not reminiscent of a previous disaster? New Orleans also lacked sufficient infrastructure and a strong economic foundation.

The passage starts out reading like a Lulan press release (and I am surprised the Huffington Post editors let it stand; on second thought, given what the Huffington Post has become, I am not so surprised), with plenty of social-entrepreneurial pixie dust to go around: there is talk of “celebrating” and “partnering,” keeping things “local” and “fair,” and (of course) of “connecting.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I distrust people who talk this way, and I can’t help but see through all this sunshine a mixture of condescension, pious self-regard, and enchantment with the ways of the Third World: a benevolent maternalism, as it were, our own 21st century, politically correct, post-colonial variant of the benevolent paternalism of 19th century anthropologists and industrialists. Ask the Haitians how that worked out for them.

Be that as it may — Ms. Blossom has a business to run, and if Huffington Post won’t prevent her from delivering a sales pitch in the midst of an article about Haitian relief, then why should I? — the real rub for me in all this comes with the comparison to New Orleans.

Blossom’s comparison of the infrastructure of New Orleans to that of Haiti might lead one to wonder whether she has actually been to either place (but she has); and it raises the more serious question what “sufficient” infrastructure really is. New Orleans’ infrastructure had fallen into disrepair; Haiti’s telecommunications infrastructure, to take just one example, is the least developed in all Latin America.

Comparing the economic conditions of an American city — any American city, New Orleans or Detroit or the South Bronx — with those of the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, where 80% of the population live under the poverty line, and 54% in abject poverty, is to make nonsense of economics, of history and of the world.

To take exception to Blossom’s line of argument is not to deny her main point. Savvy economic actors who run “successful businesses” and people with stable incomes and access to credit are, no doubt, better equipped than less fortunate or — dare I say it? — less entrepreneurial people to recover from natural disasters; and it’s important that as Haitians rebuild their economy and infrastructure, they also acquire new economic competencies and new skills for the local and global marketplace. There is no future in depending on foreign aid or on the kindness of strangers — even strangers who claim they are working on your behalf or for your own good.

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