What do Haitians need most? To get away from Haiti

Bookmark and Share Economics & Deregulation and Food & Environment | Chris Berg
The Sunday Age 24th January, 2010

It will take much more than a global outpouring of grief to fix Haiti. But there is one concrete way rich countries could really help out - immigration. Twelve days after the Haitian earthquake, the choices for the poorest nation in the western hemisphere are stark. Haiti was already an impoverished and virtually ungoverned nation before January 12.

Haiti's poverty has meant it lacks the basic things that make wealthy nations better able to cope with natural disasters - functioning emergency services, law and order, safe and stable buildings, and supplies that are cheap, abundant and accessible.

So with poverty and the failure of development being at the centre of the Haitian tragedy, it's easy to be cynical when the usual crowd pipes up. Last week, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown reportedly asked schlocky American Idol judge Simon Cowell to record a charity single to raise money for Haiti. George Clooney has hosted a fund-raising telethon, complete with "all of his famous pals", as US Magazine succinctly described them. And Linkin Park, Alanis Morissette and Peter Gabriel are all donating "unreleased tracks" for a charity compilation. They're no doubt trying to help in good faith.

Haiti has been a long-term recipient of foreign aid. Between 1990 and 2005, foreign aid to Haiti came to $US4 billion. Aid provides about 7 per cent of Haiti's total gross domestic product. And for the past century, economic growth in Haiti has either been stagnant or declined. The reasons for this are many. Extraordinarily bad governments, which in the 20th century seesawed between repressive dictatorship and corrupt plutocracy, have undermined any legal framework for the protection of civil liberties, property rights, or for law and order.

It is for this reason that, when assessing the impact of its aid projects, the World Bank found "in project after project, the reason for delayed implementation or cancellation, is a coup [or] civil unrest". This has been compounded by the bureaucratic complexity of many aid projects, administrative failures by Haitian governments, and confused priorities on the part of donors. Future assistance programs will have to directly tackle Haiti's biggest problem - bad governance - if they are to succeed.

But if the developed world really wants to help Haiti, we could let as many Haitians as humanly possible work in the West. We could dramatically expand our guest worker and migration programs.

According to a 2008 study by the Centre for Global Development, Haitian immigrants in the US earn on average six times more than equally educated Haitians who stay home. It would be more effective and efficient to allow Haitians to move to other countries than wait for the international community or aid organisations or the Haitian Government to repair two centuries of institutional failure.

Immigration away from Haiti will actually help Haiti. Foreign aid to the country may be substantial, but it is overwhelmed by what expat Haitians send home. In 2008, foreign governments gave Haiti $US912 million. Haitian expats sent back at least $US1.3 billion, according to the most conservative estimates. Other estimates suggest unreported remittances to Haiti might account for up to a third of Haiti's total GDP.

And while much foreign aid is delivered directly to the Haitian Government (which doesn't have a wonderful track record in using it well), these remittances go straight to the Haitian people.

The Obama Administration's recent announcement that Haitians already living in the US (illegally or not) will be granted temporary visas is an important step. But for domestic politicians in the developed world, increasing foreign aid is less politically complicated than dramatically expanding immigration intakes. And certainly less controversial.

Nevertheless, even a modest expansion of guest worker programs in the US and other developed nations will have a greater long-term effect than any amount of money Simon Cowell's charity single can raise.