Economic Recovery after Disaster: Good News/Bad News

As we near the one year anniversary since the Haiti quake (which, initial estimates suggest, racked up a solid $8 billion in losses and damages or 120% of Haiti’s 2009 GDP), there’s a somber tone to the news coverage. There’s nothing even a little bit surprising about this; we’ve seen scarce tangible progress in the past year. In fact, the stability and absence of public health crises touted at the six-month mark have been blown to smithereens by cholera and silly-fraudulent elections, but let’s not eclipse the arguably more important long-term projections. Let’s feel perfectly at ease with our displeasure at the current situation (a woman next to me on the train the other day asked if anyone had seriously considered just “canceling” Haiti as a country, and since neither of us knew who to talk to about that, I suggested we table the idea), and then, with a bit more wind in our sails, move further out in our projections. Charles Kenny makes an interesting case for this in Foreign Policy, reprinted by NPR today:

In the long term, this economic impact could be far more muted, if history is any guide. Analysis of previous catastrophes suggests that economic performance of countries in the decade after a natural disaster is indistinguishable from that of countries that didn’t suffer comparable misfortunes. Even for countries suffering the largest earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes, GDP per capita was the same three, five or 10 years after the disaster — as it would had there been no disaster at all.

[A study financed by the IADB] jibes with what we know about the long-term impact of wars on economic performance. For example, by 1960 Germany was back to where you’d expect its income to be based on long-term growth trends from 1850 to 1910 — two World Wars and the Great Depression notwithstanding. All the bombing that the United States carried out on Japan in World War II didn’t alter city growth in the country over the medium run. And University of California, Berkeley, economists Edward Miguel and Gerard Roland argue that the American bombing of Vietnam — which totaled 7.5 million tons of explosives — hasn’t impacted long-run performance in that country, either.

So, the good news for Haiti is that:

…the things that determine long-term growth can’t be blown up. It isn’t factories or schools, or even individual people. Mounting cross-country evidence suggests that what separates poor countries from rich is differing paths of institutional development.

The bad news, then:

…The country’s history involves virtually all the features that economists have correlated with weak institutions and slow growth over the long term, from its history of slavery and colonial rule to its post-independence succession of coups, U.S. invasion, and some of the Americas’ worst dictatorial misrule under “Papa” and “Bebe Doc” Duvalier. The country’s weak institutions were tragically on display in the aftermath of the earthquake. One reason the death toll was so high was that building and land-use codes were patchily written and almost completely unenforced — so when the earthquake struck, buildings collapsed and slid down hillsides, trapping or killing those inside. In 2006, Transparency International declared Haiti the world’s most corrupt country. Poor institutions of governance help to explain why, between 1950 and 2002, Haiti’s average income actually fell, from $1,051 to $752 per capita. If, as it recovers from the earthquake, Haiti merely manages to stay as poor as it is today, that would count as an improvement.

Ok, so not a totally bright picture, but at least we know where to set the bar. Onward:

Still, there is some real good news to report regarding the benighted country’s broader development prospects. While Haiti’s income per capita dropped over the second half of the last century, infant mortality also fell dramatically, dropping from 22 percent to 8 percent of children under age 1. Meanwhile, life expectancy climbed from 42 to 61 years between 1960 and 2008. The progress in health in the country over the last 20 years is one reason why in the post-quake period, epidemics of infectious disease were limited to a cholera outbreak that was reasonably quickly contained. Similarly, adult literacy increased from 11 percent to 50 percent, and the primary school completion rate from 27 to 47 percent, between 1980 and 1997.

That progress reflects a considerable rollout of services central to the quality of life in Haiti over the last 30 years. For example, immunization rates against diphtheria, tuberculosis, and whooping cough climbed from 3 to 59 percent between 1980 and 2006. Schools were built and staffed. Children turned up. Some of them even managed to learn something.

This performance is particularly impressive given that Haiti has a central government that only spent around $530 million a year for 9 million people before the quake, or less than $60 per citizen. This is a little less than 1 percent of what New York City spends per capita on city services alone. Even though the general quality of the country’s governance could only be described as grim and the record of donor assistance mixed at best, Haiti has seen some innovative approaches to providing for basic needs.

Mixed bag, but let’s be honest: state-building isn’t easy work, and Rome wasn’t built in a day.

This entry was posted on by Allison Howard-Berry.