As aid workers continue to sort through the rubble in Haiti and the world continues to focus on the suffering of the Haitians, some familiar tropes of journalism and Western liberalism are surfacing in the news coverage. Case in point is the piece in today’s New York Times sports section by sports-business columnist Richard Sandomir, titled “A Manufacturer’s Debt to Haiti,” about the Rawlings Sporting Goods company. According to Sandomir, Rawlings owes Haiti because 20 years ago, they shut down their baseball assembly plant in Port-au-Prince and moved to Costa Rica. From his point of view and that of Josh DeWind, who has written a book about aid to Haiti, Rawlings did well in Haiti when the country was friendly to foreign business because of cheap labor and then bailed on it when the country collapsed in violence and chaos after the fall of dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. DeWind says that Rawlings now has a humanitarian obligation to go back. Sandomir thinks Major League Baseball, whose official baseball supplier is Rawlings, should pressure the company to return to the devastated country.
While the impulse behind this idea may be humanitarian — Haiti was already one of the poorest countries in the world, and after the earthquake, it can use all the help it can get — it also speaks volumes about the way well-meaning liberals misunderstand the problems of Third World countries. Much like the calls from celebrities like the singer Bono for more foreign aid for poor countries and the cancellation of their accrued debt, demanding that Rawlings move back to Haiti says more about Western guilt than the prospects for economic development. In an era where the global economy is open for participation to any place, it is no longer possible to blame the ills of the Third World on colonialism or predatory international companies. It is the absence of the rule of law (which, in Haiti’s case, not only means the lack of confidence in property rights but also a level of violence that has made it impossible for a business to operate), restrictions on free-market activity, and endemic corruption that create such a wasteland for investment.
It is possible that the earthquake’s impact will be so great that it will actually change the culture of Haiti and open an era in which gangs and political gangsterism will no longer be sovereign. But that would require not only a sea change in Haitian culture but also a massive commitment from donor nations to administer projects in a manner that forces change. Such a transformation cannot be affected by mere good will. The problem is that NGOs have tended to reinforce local elites and corruption throughout the Third World. If a new Haiti is to be created, it will require transformation of both Haitian culture and of Western humanitarian groups that funnel aid there.
In the absence of such changes, if Rawlings were to throw money and personnel into the maelstrom that is post-earthquake Haiti, it would not only be a disaster for the company but also of no help to the people there. Western guilt makes for good newspaper columns, but it will not build a country in which business or freedom can thrive.