Debating David Brooks or Jonah Goldberg over whether we should help Haiti recover and grow again – to “build back better” as the slogan says – scarcely seems worthwhile, especially at a moment when millions of people as well as governments around the world are settling the question with their checkbooks. But neoconservatives who insist that development assistance cannot help, whether macro or micro, and that cultural forces will forever doom the Haitians, are purposely undermining the world’s commitment to rebuild the island -- which will require years, not weeks or months.
Their arguments are more insidious than original. The Haitians suffer from “a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences,” wrote Brooks, including “the influence of the voodoo religion,” a lack of internalized responsibility, and neglect of children. Goldberg advised that when the rubble is cleared, the time will be right for some “tough love” – and warned that additional aid is bound to do more harm than good.
When the neocons confidently spout negative generalizations about the Haitians and Haiti, they sound as if they know what they’re talking about when in fact they probably know very little (as is often the case with them, most notably and expensively in Iraq). Dismissing the history of colonial exploitation and American collusion with the dictators and oligarchs who have ruined Haiti, they blame Haitian culture. That absolves the United States of responsibility and in effect encourages everyone to do little or nothing, because nothing will change no matter what we do.
I spent last Monday in Haiti, traveling with former President Bill Clinton as he delivered a planeload of emergency supplies to Port-au-Prince’s main hospital – and although that surely doesn’t make me any more of an expert on the island’s culture or politics than Brooks or Goldberg, I met several individuals who might qualify down there.
One of the most notable people I encountered was Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien, founder of the Digicel mobile telephone company, which has acquired about three million customers in Haiti, invested $300 million in its system there, and built dozens of new schools in the slums of Cite Soleil. I met him at the airport, where he showed up to assist with the logistics of transporting the supplies Clinton had brought in to the hospital. The largest foreign investor by far in the local economy, he has been working tirelessly in the relief effort since the earthquake, donating millions of dollars in direct aid and free phone credit as well as his corporate aircraft. Unpretentious but brilliant as well as tough, he doesn’t share the dismal outlook of the pundits, probably because he has actually worked with many Haitians over the past four years. Digicel’s youthful sales force in the island’s cities, he likes to say, includes the most energetic and creative entrepreneurs he has ever seen (and his own companies span the world from the Caribbean to Africa and the Pacific).
O’Brien proved his optimism about Haiti’s future long before the earthquake. Now when hope is overwhelmed every day, he remains determined to see the island's reconstruction -- and couldn't care less about sniping from the likes of Brooks and Goldberg or Rush Limbaugh for that matter.