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.

22 thoughts on “David Brooks saves the world in 1000 words

  1. I think you can make a fairly strong case that any solutions that spring from “caution and humility” don’t make it on the NYT’s editorial pages very often.

  2. Is it actually known that prevalence of voodoo in a country is associated with worse development outcomes? I honestly do not know — I’ve never seen a study to this effect.

  3. Chris, I sense you are on target in criticizing Brooks’ certitude as he attempts to draw conclusions here. On the other hand, his first five or so paragraphs are accurate, and helpful — if not new to those who have been thinking about this for some time. And few are saying now as well to the mass market. So I think the essay is serving a useful purpose on the whole.

    I’ve been wondering if something like Romer’s charter cities idea ought to be tried in Haiti although I’m fair for certain how. I do wonder if Canada wouldn’t be a better temporary administrator than the UN (or the US). It feels like a good match given Canada’s capabilities and clean hands in the region, and there’s a large Haitian diaspora in Canada.


    Not to mention that whenever democratic progressive government is elected anywhere, in Haiti being the Lavallas Party and its leader Father Aristide, we systematically undermine it. Whether left to be responsible for its own destiny Haiti would make better progress we do not know but we do know that U.S. sponsored meddling against the will of the people has not led to anything beneficial for the Haitian people.

    Further undermining the credibility of the above prescriptions in the article is the author of these remarks David Brooks. This is the same David Brooks that at a Woodrow Wilson Conference ostensibly on peace in the Middle East, either tacitly agreed with the panel or himself affirmed, – – I really don’t remember except that they all agreed – – that there was no room for both Israelis and Arabs to live in the Middle East! Of course this was before our near defeat in Iraq when Israeli expansionists had their sails unfurled.. No disrespect to the many honest Israelis I only wish to address David Brooks’ authority as a thinker and moral leader, along with the un-constructive role the U.S. has played in Haiti and whenever progressive governments are seemingly trying to make a break with a past of exploitation. Honest reflexion along with charity begins at home!




    The hopefully well meaning commenters, and David Brooks if he doesn’t already know it, should first learn something about politics in Haiti which is much more important than voodoo in governing the country. The real voodoo here is the U.S.’s circumventing of democratic elections to install governments consistently representing foreign interests and that of the elite bourgeoisie in Haiti. That’s the real voodoo as Bush father might have said before he was muzzled.



    Chris, I mean no personal dis-respect an I am sure you are trying has hard as you know how. but I wonder if an Assistant Professor at Yale, a school which still has a polo club, can reasonably be expected to discuss the problems of a country like Haiti with any degree of credibility.

    I am not suggesting that one needs to be poor to have a sincere desire to assist others and a clear analysis of their problems but that being in the bastion of class privelege may indeed color one’s perceptions and desire to solve the problem.

    By the way, How’s the polo club doing this year”


  7. FUCK David Brooks. Maybe Haiti, and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean for that matter, would have a bit more peace, prosperity, and stability if the Big Brother to the north didn’t systematically undermine their social and economic institutions when they don’t run absolutely parallel to the US’s interests.

  8. SS, is this your first time reading this blog? Polo is an expensive sport, true, but what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China? or Chris’s take on David Brooks’ remarks.

  9. SS, by your reasoning, you have no real ability to make any comment on the problems (or output) of a polo-playing university like Yale unless you went to one. So did you?

  10. Does Brooks sound like Obama advisor Cass Sunstein, who wants to trick us into thinking the way he wants us to think?

    There seems to be a surfeit of folks at the top of the economic/political ladder who think they’re so far superior to us poor, unwashed masses that they actually are doing us a favor by manipulating our behavior.

    Carolyn Kay

  11. I did but that’s not exactly my point. There is an establishment with a set of interests as perceived by them in American hegemony and (to be a bit glib) the playing of polo. I don’t question one’s ability to understand the problems from within the establishment, clearly one can, but rather one’s ability to articulate them.

    I’m sure Chris is aware of Father Aristides election and his disposition as the result of a coup. I’m sure he is also aware of the U.S. and France’s opposition to the Lavallas Party, that Father Aristide led, and its other candidates for office. This opposition to a democratically elected popular movement is more important than any influence of voodoo on governance, which I dare say is minimal. Yet as a member of the establishment, polo playing or not, Chris would have a great deal of difficulty saying this. But it is precisely what has to be said and where any discussion of Haiti must begin. These are the facts, the rest is pure obfuscation.

    And yes, I have spent time in Haiti working on economic development


  12. SS, Where exactly did you get the impression that Chris endorses the belief that Voodoo is a more significant factor to Haiti’s development than instability in the government? Furthermore, certainly a professor at Yale qualifies for “a member of the establishment”, but that doesn’t mean alignment with the American or French government’s policies circa 2004.
    You’re jumping to conclusions there… exactly how shy has Chris been in this blog to criticize American policymakers and opinion leaders?

  13. And on the U.S. role in keeping Aristide out and the Lavallas disempowered ? Given the generosity of the American people, I think they’d like to know what their government is doing, rather than some ridiculous rantings by a feckless columnist on voodoo.


  14. Without taking Brooks’ theory of development one way or another, it isn’t clear to me that “this is a poverty story” or that disaster preparedness is necessarily an outcome of development. The earthquake in China, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, even Hurricane Katrina, all showed gaps in preparedness in very developed places. The San Fransisco Bay area wasn’t destroyed by a 7.0 earthquake, because people built to withstand earthquakes given the history there. If a 7.0 earthquake hit a place hit Dubai or Rio de Janeiro, I imagine the destruction would be closer to the scale of haiti than northern california.

  15. Chris, I ended up here following a link from TheMonkeyCage. Re. your last sentence, in all fairness to Bill Clinton, all that I can find in the FP interivew was Clinton remarking that, in his opinion, Brooks was “very good.” That hardly makes him a “leading intellectual light.” Further, the question prompted a response from Clinton that makes him appear as if the only thing that he reads is the NY Times op-ed pages — Krugman, Brooks, and Friedman were “first mentions.” Finally, precious few other presidents — only one leaps to mind — would have Robert Wright and Matt Ridley on their reading lists, and this ex-president can reasonably elaborate on what they wrote.

    dick winters

  16. Hey, I love Bill. But when you ask one of the most influential people in the world who they think are the “smartest, most penetrating thinkers you know”, don’t you wince a little when he jumps immediately to three NYT columnists in a row? Especially after his uncommon answer to the world leaders to watch question.


    One can only conclude from Chris’ remark above that he is unable – -not allowed might be more apt – – to address U.S. misdeeds abroad. This is what I expected but it is unfortunate as it preempts all serious discussion of the problem (exactly).



    I don’t find the discussion funny. An honest person would say I don’t really know enough about the Lavallas to comment; or the U.S. does make mistakes meddling but I can’t say if this is one and I do (or don’t) think they make too many. Or, alternatively, actually discuss the coup – – this is supposed to be a Yale Assistant after all – – and the expressed desire of Aristide to return at a time when the N.Y. Times (today’s) is saying that the current President is disengaged and the country lacking leadership.

    No instead a glib response from a wannebe member of the polo playing elite who probably doesn’t even get to play, certainly not first string – – you have to bring your own horses, plural, the poor dears get tired.

    Good Luck

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