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Natural disasters and economic development

Great article by Brooks in the NYTimes a couple days back….


I think a couple things I would take further:

1) Aid will never be the solution to any long-term problems.

I am of course not talking about the aid we are giving now to alleviate the immense amount of suffering Haiti is undergoing via charitable intervention both private and government. However, long-term we’ll realize Haiti has had a whole host of problems: massive corruption, little infrastructure, lack of property rights, poor education etc. Why should anyone even think about starting a business? To get a business license takes an average of 218 days, to survive often you need to bribe the right magistrate/policeman/gangster and when there’s little existence of a stable capital market.

After the smoke clears, I think we should look to the problems of Africa and not the rebirth of New Orleans as the appropriate model for long-term solutions. While I am not sure we can simply do nothing; sending money that won’t reach the poorest of poor but will line the pockets of the kleptocrats and their cronies is not compassionate, but morally wrong. Acknowledging these problems requires a solution that is not as easy as texting the G-8 at a rock concert.

2) Global “green” initiatives need to take a back seat to economic development especially in third-world countries.
Brooks notes that one major problem in Haiti results from its lack of development, comparing the devastation to that wrought by the seismically similar 1989 earthquake in SF. The disparity in death tolls is staggering. This is not a unique trend.  The death toll after Hurricane Katrina was roughly 2,500 people; The Indian Ocean Tsunami was over 200,000. Katrina was insanely mismanaged and is its own story of what not to do during a natural disaster. However, this paled in comparison to  the severe underdevelopment in Southeast Asia. Developments in communication, construction and transportation often limits these mass casualties. (See also Bam, Iran). Technology, not mindless self-flagellation is the solution to alleviating this problem.

We’ve spent too much time arguing away the nuances of global warming (2 degrees that, 3 inches less, billions of dollars that), which severely impede the development of poor countries.  Yet, the major issues after the disaster in Southeast Asia were access to clean water, sanitation and simple medical treatments. While we take them for granted in the developed world, in a third world country, they are impossible to find amidst disaster.   Furthermore, due to lack of technological development there was  no ability to detect seismic activity and warn for the tsunami like we have in the US.  Limiting their access to energy  and natural resources only serves to keep these countries without the literal power that can fuel development. There are many examples of “green” groups pressuring banks and corporations from making energy investments in poorer regions.

You look at the massive growth and advancement of China, you’ll also see massive smokestacks fueling this growth. While China can afford to lift its proverbial middle finger at snooty environmentalists, smaller countries are forced to assuage the demands of NGOs insisting upon wind and solar energy. Interestingly enough, it is because of this very sharp economic growth that China can now invest in a plethora of green projects.

Forget the spurious connection made by some that the warming caused the XYZ disaster (unless you are climatologist/seismologist Danny Glover). Natural disasters will and always have been a part of life on Earth. We need to acknowledge this fact and our ability to at least limit our exposure to nature’s harshest strikes. I’ll listen to someone argue that “protecting nature” is more important than economic development, but often I find these very people shielded from nature’s most awful burdens protected by the comforts of Western technology while spouting their nonsense from their wifi notebooks. In no way is this a sufficient contention to address global poverty but I’m all for allowing countries to embrace green on their own terms.

  1. Jae Jin
    January 22, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    The concept that economic development and “global green initiatives”(or green living) are at odds is only true if your definition of economic development is conspicuous consumption oriented rather than quality of life and community oriented. Sustainable local communities can, not only help humans become greener (for example, live more closely in harmony with natural rhythms in balance), but they can help human beings live richer and more meaningful lives (which I would define as true economic development).

    Therefore, I’d state that any individual who claims that being green must wait while we deal with the global economic crisis is suffering from one of three conditions. Either he really doesn’t understand what green means, he believes that economic development is merely amassing more consumer goods and this is good, or he is of limited intellect. 🙂

    • January 22, 2010 at 7:26 pm

      Conspicuous Consumption, coined by Veblen, is used to describe the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. People who can’t buy food in Haiti or live without electricity in Burma aren’t examples of conspicuous consumption. I’m all for richer and meaningful lives, but I think its a bit bothersome for us to wax philosophical about what is a more meaningful life when we can afford and use these niceties, while the poorer citizens of the world cannot.

  2. Jae Jin
    January 22, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    Oh i’ll add a quick note to how this can tie in with this recent disaster in Haiti. Obviously, it is my hope that from this tragedy, can come a new Haiti. But I’d be praying and hoping for a new Haiti that lives sustainably as a small island nation rather than one that depends on global “hand-outs” which keeps its population of dwelling individuals forever enslaved to the whims of some “developed” world. Honestly, i’m going to sound like a complete asshole, but in some odd way, i do believe Haitians would be better off (IN THE LONG RUN) if the rest of the world left them alone(unless it was without agenda). It’s fine if individuals want to lend a helping hand, with no strings attached. But the founding fathers of the United States of America did not intend the federal government to get huge by taxing its citizens and then deciding to send aid to foreign countries like Haiti. The government should not have the right or authority to effectively take a citizen’s property and give it to another citizen, which in turn would mean much less to a non-citizen. But I suppose people don’t see that this is happening.

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