The Haitian tragedy of the past week falls – as my geographically astute readers will observe – just beyond the boundaries of the continent I currently call home. I don’t want to suggest that my travels in Africa somehow make me an authority on what is happening in Haiti. I’m not. The blog is This Is Africa – not These Are Black People.
Billy Sothern at Slate nicely sums up the problem – and danger – of foreign correspondents trying to report about a complicated country that they’ve only just managed to bone up on over a few late night sessions of Googling.
On the one hand, governments across Africa are – to some degree or other – sending aid to the beleaguered island nation. (The list includes the DRC, which, as Reuters reports, “has just been told by the International Monetary Fund [that] its debt levels are fiscally unsustainable.” Picture poor Kabila forking over all those hard-earned, debt-relieved dollars!) Plus at least one African leader has proposed “the creation of a new African state to resettle Haitians left homeless by an earthquake.”
(A brief but relevant aside: Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who made the suggestion, is rapidly gaining on Libyan Pariah-in-Chief Muammar Qaddafi for my annual “What the Fuck Was He Thinking” African Leader Award. “All we are saying is that the Haitians didn’t take themselves over there,” Wade told Reuters TV on Monday. “We have to offer them the chance to come to Africa, that is my idea. They have as much right to Africa as I have.” This from a man whose visionary plan to combat poverty in his country includes the construction of a 328-foot high bronze statue of the “African Renaissance” with a $27 million price tag attached. And built by North Koreans. From which he’ll take a 35 percent cut of future tourist revenues.)
More to the point, though: I came across a heated cyber-skirmish between a couple of conservative eggheads over at The National Review which dragged my beloved little Burundi into the picture. The argument stemmed from a column by editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg – author of the right-wing polemic Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning – in which Haitians are, in a time-honored conservative tradition, more or less blamed for being poor. “The sad truth about Haiti isn’t simply that it is poor, but that it has a poverty culture,” writes Goldberg, while sounding actually not all that sad.
The blogosphere exploded with nearly three responses. John Derbyshire criticized the author’s woeful lament that “Haiti will never get out of grinding poverty until it abandons much of its culture.” (He didn’t, in fact, disagree “that we need to transform Haiti’s ‘culture of poverty.’” He just didn’t know how to do it.) With a stunning coup de grace, Derbyshire dusted off his CIA World Factbook and boldly proclaimed that “Haiti isn’t actually that poor.”
Goldberg got testy at being misunderstood. “My meaning was only ‘there are places way poorer,’” he wrote.
At rank 203 out of 229, Haiti is in the 11th percentile. To put it another way, one country in nine is as poor as, or poorer than, Haiti. If one person in nine is shorter than me, I’m not that short. As for “arguably slightly poorer”: with Haiti at per capita GDP $1,300, I think Eritrea at $700 and Burundi at $300 would give you an argument.
I would like to see that argument. I would like to see Eritrea and Burundi gang up on Haiti and shake their fists and say, “Hey, Haiti, we’ll show you abject poverty!”
This whole argument is so dangerously stupid it should come with an FDA warning. Bickering over indices and World Bank rankings when it comes to a certain level of poverty is sort of like arguing about whether or not your hot dog is Kosher: at the end of the day, it’s still really, really bad for you. Besides, when you consider the obscene levels of economic disparity you find in much of the developing world, you have to take those measures of per capita GDP with a big grain of WFP-distributed salt. Does Gabon’s gaudy $14,200 per capita GDP mean anything to all but a small circle of its oilgarchs? Does the great resource wealth of Namibia (per capita GDP: $6,400) improve the lives of its rural poor? (Actually, according to some, it makes them worse.) Are Kenyans better off than Burundians, since their per capita GDP is nearly four times as great? Even if they live in the far north, where people refer to “Kenya” – i.e., Nairobi – as a distant, far-off land?
Despite the fact that the author’s idea of a good time is betting on Human Development Indices, this piece makes a good argument against the HDI. Conclusion: “Scandinavia comes out on top according to the HDI because the HDI is basically a measure of how Scandinavian your country is.”
I was talking this afternoon with Pancrace Cimaye, spokesman for Burundi’s opposition FRODEBU party. Cimaye – a stout, world-weary man whose paunch suggested a very Scandinavian level of Human Development – was talking about the extreme poverty in Burundi. He said that FRODEBU officials had a certain parlor trick they played in the countryside to show how five years of ruling-party rule had done nothing for the country’s development. I will leave aside the swarminess I feel about this schtick, since it sort of makes a point.
They would tell a gathering of party members – sometimes 1,000 strong – that if any of them had a 10,000 Burundian franc note (the equivalent of about eight US bucks), FRODEBU would match it with one of their own. Not a single man would raise his hand. So they would ask if anyone had Fbu 5,000. None. Then 2,000. Then 1,000. Finally, a few farmers would raise their hands. And that was it.
Now, whether that points to the corruption and incompetence of the ruling party – as opposed to any number of very complicated factors – is debatable. But the reality of the poverty it underscores is pretty concrete. I would be happy to bet my own Fbu 10,000 note that you could use that same schtick with a bunch of Kenyan Samburu or Ugandan Karamoja or Mozambican Makonde or Botswanan San or Nigerian Ijaw – or even hypothetical-$1,300-a-year-earning Haitians – and the result would be the same. At some point, the indices are just dressing-up some ugly, naked facts.