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Don't Subsidize Haitian Corruption

The devastation in Haiti has brought into stark relief the best and worst of America’s approach to tragedy abroad. On one hand, there is a commendable outpouring of charity from the American people and yet another display of the effectiveness and competence of the U.S. military. On the other, the Obama administration and other spendthrifts are asserting a non-existent responsibility for American taxpayers to help rebuild Haiti. Their call to ride to the rescue reflects a foreign policy that wastes taxpayer dollars while actually fueling corruption and misery. Furthermore, there is no compelling reason for the United States to involve itself in Haiti’s reconstruction. It is an impossible task for another country and there are no U.S. interests at stake that warrant involvement beyond short-term rescue activities.

Haiti’s misery is not the fault of U.S. actions or inactions, although this appears to have eluded some commentators. In a Washington Post op-ed piece on Sunday, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and author of "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet," announced “the United States will have to do things differently,” casting partial blame upon “America’s political swings,” “ideologues in the Bush administration,” U.S. economic sanctions, and an “illegal aid freeze on international development agencies.” He wants Western governments, who are already broke, to spend ten to fifteen billion on Haiti. -- At least he did not go as far as actor Danny Glover who seemed somehow to relate the earthquake and its aftermath to U.S. policy on climate change!

Neither Sachs nor Glover identified the chief culprit of current or past suffering in Haiti: intense corruption. Transparency International ranks Haiti as one of the most corrupt places on earth—only 7 of 180 countries have a worse ranking. The State Department’s human rights report on Haiti cites “severe corruption in all branches of government,” including serious police, judicial and voting improprieties. It notes that there were no charges even filed during the most recent year the report covered, despite plenty of investigations and evidence against senior officials.

Without strong support for the rule of law, large-scale commerce is difficult or impossible, wealth is accumulated primarily by the corrupt, and things not deemed essential for everyday life—like stronger buildings—are overlooked. This is overwhelmingly due to the government of Haiti. To the extent that there is any foreign complicity in this dire situation, it is from funneling economic assistance through corrupt Haitian institutions.

The U.S. has spent nearly $1.5 billion in aid to Haiti since 1990. Before the earthquake, Congress mandated in this year’s federal budget that not less than $296 million in aid be spent on the island nation. While that is not a lot by Washington standards, it means that all of the federal income tax generated from more than 38,000 average American taxpayers will be spent on Haiti. This is hardly an efficient use of Americans’ hard-earned money.

In seeking donations and laying the groundwork for additional government outlays, President Obama and his two predecessors asked the public for blind trust. Bill Clinton said that “before this earthquake Haiti had the best chance in my lifetime to escape its history” and asserted the prognosis is somehow better now. George W. Bush, who further indebted the American people by trillions of dollars through his own extravagant heresy of “compassionate” conservatism, said “just send your cash. One of the things that the president and I will do is to make sure your money is spent wisely.”

While that is not theoretically impossible, it would be unprecedented. Aid to corrupt locales risks spreading corruption because it flows through corrupt organizations. Before last week’s earthquake, the Haitian nation was economically indistinguishable from its state in 1990. That fact alone is evidence that Western largesse has not helped matters. When U.S. aid was at its highest in the 1990s, Haitian per capita GDP actually shrank.

It is true that the U.S. has also poured aid into other corrupt economies, such as Egypt and Pakistan, with a similar negligible or negative economic result. But there is a major difference between Haiti and those two countries, where the U.S. has clear national interests given their strategic importance. With Pakistan in particular, the negative implications of corruption take a back seat to the need to support a necessary, if unreliable, wartime partner. There is an acceptable political justification, even if there is not an economic one.

But this is not the case with Haiti, where we have virtually no interests at stake. It does not pose the same risk of failed states that occurs where Islamists and terrorists are active. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard can prevent any attempt at mass illegal immigration to America. Put bluntly, the U.S. government has no business attempting to rebuild Haiti.

This does not mean we have to turn our backs on Haitian suffering. Private charities are active in Haiti and can be more efficient than governments. American efforts to save trapped Haitians and deliver short-term emergency relief are also effective. They show once again that while the U.N.’s core competency in disaster situations seems to be holding press conferences, the U.S. military accomplishes tough missions with vigor. But when the rescue job is done, the military should leave and the U.S. government should shut off the spigot and stop squandering taxpayer dollars on Haiti.

Christian Whiton was a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009.  He is a principal at DC Asia Advisory in Washington, and a fellow at the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles. http://twitter.com/ChristianWhiton

Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-09.  He is author of the new book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books).