David Brooks saves the world in 1000 words

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…

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.

…it’s time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.

That is David Brooks selectively quoting the development literature.

His confidence makes me uncomfortable. To paraphrase, unkindly: These Haitians need to be more like hardworking, thrifty Americans. We’ve spent five decades learning that everything we thought would work in aid did not. Clearly it’s time to get tough. I read about some people who made this work in Harlem, so it’s obviously the answer for Haitians, whom through newspaper reading, I have deduced are also resistant to progress.

Don’t misunderstand me: Brooks could be right. In fact, I’m starting one randomized control trial to test the idea. I’m a little further from propounding it as God’s honest truth on the pages of the Times.

Sometimes the  problem with big development solutions is they spring from hubris and certitude rather than caution and humility. There’s another approach to change, described in the previous post.

I’m slightly terrified now that Bill Clinton, special envoy to Haiti, has said David Brooks is his leading intellectual light.