When I first heard the news from Haiti and watched the horrible stories on television, I had the same impulse I imagine millions around the world experienced: I found myself thinking of catching the next plane to Port-au-Prince to help in whatever way I could.
What was the basis of this impulse? It is our moral intuition, sometimes called the principle of solidarity. We feel pain when others feel pain, and joy when they experience joy; we slow down on the freeway when we pass an accident not merely for some macabre or prurient interest, but because we recognize that “there but for the grace of God go I.”
And yet I had to ask myself the practical question: What would I actually do when I got off the plane in Haiti? I do not know how to set broken bones. I can’t fix mudslides. I cannot operate on limbs and eyes. Only after all these things were done would I be able to fit into the division of labor to authentically serve people.
I am deeply grateful for those who can do these things, and I am inspired that they are there. In fact, aid workers have been emphatic that the last thing Haiti needs right now is a massive influx of people bringing only their good intentions. Such a run on the country right now would increase the need for food, shelter, transportation, and more.
The impulse to help, to do anything — largely and understandably based on our emotions — is exactly what confuses our thinking about charity and economics. It is the confusion between sentiment and practicality, between emotion and reason, between piety and technique.
On the other hand, it would be a cold and spiritually dead person who sat back without any sense of emotion over this Haitian calamity. And yet, we know that what has compounded the suffering in Haiti is not only the earthquake as such but the poverty that hindered the necessary preparation and at all levels of society.
More generally, the fundamental problem in Haiti is not bad weather or natural disasters. It is a problem of economics. Haiti has suffered from various forms of dictatorship for many decades, which has eviscerated from Haitian culture a general sense of entrepreneurship and enterprise. This is not to say that Haitians aren’t entrepreneurial. One need only ob- serve Haitian immigrants selling goods on the streets of New York to be convinced of their entrepreneurial spirit. Rather, what has made Haiti as a culture resistant to entrepreneurship has been the inability of Haitians themselves to gain control their own lives by ridding themselves of government policies that have made the country dependent on foreign aid and powerful dictators.
We like to imagine that we could send our favorite things — such as cars, computers, and the best medical equipment — to help. But when there is no electricity and few sources for fuel, and when the roads can’t be used for heavy transportation, all our gizmos and products and conveniences become useless. Nor is it the case that piles of paper money are going to be a magic cure-all. When there is nothing to buy, and when replacement parts are not available, and the retail- and wholesale-trading sectors cannot support an advanced economy, money alone cannot do much good.
Haiti needs practical help and generous charity right now — implemented intelligently, and with a keen eye for existing conditions. We need to support aid agencies that provide water and medicine. In the long run, we have to look at what Haiti needs to prevent such disasters and minimize their impact. What the country needs is economic development and a culture that can support such development.
We are a very long way from that, and this catastrophe has set Haiti back even further. However, this is an opportunity to build a society that is prosperous, industrious, virtuous, and free. What Haiti needs are the institutions that provide protection and cushioning in cases of emergency. Most of all, it needs to develop economically.
This is an edited version that first appeared in National Review Online.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.