Bryan Caplan  

Murphy's Law

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Economist Bob Murphy volunteered to help with Haitian earthquake relief.  It's quite a story.  The peak:
[T]he Haitians who interacted with our base was that the locals viewed us with suspicion. In particular, when they would see a team of HODR volunteers engaging in literal hard labor, using sledgehammers and wheelbarrows to remove rubble from a collapsed residence, many of the Haitians apparently resented the fact that we were "stealing their jobs." In other words, the Haitians -- where unemployment is apparently 90 percent -- thought they should be getting paid to remove the rubble from their collapsed homes.

When those who were affiliated with HODR would explain to the people that we were all volunteers, some of them were still suspicious. They speculated that even if we weren't being paid right then, we would probably be paid when we returned back home.

Now here's what struck me about all this: isn't it incredible that after their neighborhoods got wiped out, and hundreds of thousands of Haitians died, that many Haitians were apparently devoting a lot of mental effort to speculating on how much we were getting paid to cart away their rubble?...

Please note, I'm not whining about a lack of gratitude; my purpose in going to Haiti wasn't to get a pat on the head from someone who just lost his house and possibly much of his family. But what I am saying is that it makes sense, in a perverse way, that Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere. If this is the predominant mindset, how could anyone start a successful business? I would imagine the jealousy and gossip of his neighbors would be unbearable.

Makes sense to me.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (28 to date)
Mark Brady writes:

The question that comes to mind is whether this belief among Haitians was uppermost in their minds when the first relief efforts arrived in the days immediately after the earthquake. If it wasn't in their minds, why is it now? Could it be because the Haitian government is making a mess of clearing and reconstruction?

George X writes:

[Editor: the link to the article is broken; to correct it, remove the trailing backslash:

Mitch Oliver writes:

This raises a different question for me: why have none of the relief agencies thought to raise money to pay locals to do the clean-up work rather than raise money to cart in volunteers?

Bryan Caplan writes:

Thanks, George.

Ned Baker writes:

Great article. I wonder why those jealous Haitians don't just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. They could perhaps work at an unpaid internship pushing wheelbarrows to round out their resumes.

Methinks writes:

And for me, this raises still a different question.

If 90% of the Haitians are unemployed, why aren't THEY busy clearing the rubble from their own collapsed houses? It's not like they have anything more pressing to do. And, no, I don't consider eying toiling aid workers with suspicion from the shade of a palm tree a better use of their time.

Lord writes:

One can read this the other way. How amazingly wealthy we are that volunteering is an option. This is probably beyond their conception of options. People often underestimate the cost of volunteering. When all you can do is just trying to feed yourself, it isn't even a possibility.

Steve Sailer writes:

Keep in mind that poor Haitians have spent a lot of time observing the few rich Haitians. Presumably, no rich Haitian ever did anything that wasn't for his own pecuniary benefit.

don writes:


When I was 15, I lived in Chile when one of the typical Chilean earthquakes hit. We, as students, and from relatively wealthy families at that, were asked to go dig holes, channel water, cart away rubble...the chileans of the day had similar resentment...tath we were there because the government was going to give us something that they were not getting. What are these people thinking????

George X writes:

"Ils ont pris nos jerbs!"

Michael Bishop writes:

Any evidence that this attitude is widespread in Haiti rather than an isolated incident?

Steve Sailer has a plausible explanation.

Regardless, the lesson could be interpreted to be about how reasonable people react when the system is so messed up.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

This one is tough for me, because for nearly ten years I have lived in a rural area where there are not even close to enough jobs for everyone. Where to begin, to turn around such circumstance? How does one turn around suspicion and the desire to bring down those who appear to be doing better somehow, than the locals. Something has to happen to bring back the confidence and the abilities of people with little money, so that they do not need to spend their lives belittling and tearing down others just to survive.

Kevin writes:

I suspect that, in the abstract, most if not all of the volunteers would rather give an amount of money that would be sufficient to employ several Hatians than they would go to a horrible place and do backbreaking work. This is the price of the good feelings people get from helping out in person.

Methinks writes:

so that they do not need to spend their lives belittling and tearing down others just to survive.

Exactly how does belittling and tearing down others help them survive?

Seems that if they stopped wasting their time belittling everyone who is actually productive and engaged in productive activities themselves, they may even beat this poverty thing.

The vast majority of people have it in them to figure out how to survive and even thrive. If that weren't true, we would have died out as a species long ago.

George X writes:

Kevin: it's a little beyond good feelings (or, as I think, actual spiritual benefit). Money is fungible, so if you send it, you have no idea what it actually goes for: helping actual victims, buying relief supplies for black marketeers to sell, outright bribery or theft, or the plant-misting service for the D.C. offices of the NGO you donated to.

If it's actually you there on the ground, the principal-agent problem pretty much goes away: you can be as sure of how your effort is spent as you are unsure of how your money is spent. I'm no James Shikwati, but I still think there are situations where monetary aid hurts rather than helping.

(Still wondering if the set of people who know French and the set who watch South Park intersect.)

Kevin writes:

Fair enough George X, but I think even with the principal/agent problem the point is valid.

Jonah writes:

I think Murphy might be right, but Bryan is wrong about the Mexican political leader.
Here in Argentina we are used to see the same, when an important person in the government needs medical assistance, or sends their children to school, everyone yells why don't they stay at state-funded hospital (which are in a pretty bad shape), and send theirs kids to state-funded schools.
The reason why this happens, at least in Buenos Aires and its metro area, it's because people is sick and tired of listening the same politicians again and again talking about the "greatness of the state", and how well working are state-provided services but when they can use them, rationally, they choose private services.

Bob Murphy writes:

Good thoughts, everyone. Let me just add some quick remarks:

(1) It's true that sometimes the homeowners and their kids would be literally watching us clear away the rubble from their own house. So in that respect, you might think, "What the heck, why don't they help?" (Note that at some sites, the people would help, especially the younger kids who thought it was fun.)

(2) There was a huge cultural barrier. It's not pure laziness or entitlement that prevented them from helping us. In a sense, we were like aliens with advanced technology swooping in, and sometimes only a few people in our group would speak broken French/creole so it was tough to even communicate.

(3) They didn't have any tools. Without pickaxes, sledgehammers, and wirecutters (seriously heavy duty ones), you couldn't have cleared away the rubble at most of these sites. We didn't do every last thing, we just did all the hard stuff that required tools.

(4) The HODR people had a meeting one of the nights I was there, discussing big-picture strategy. And yes, we all recognized that we needed to incorporate the local people more, both to get better ties with the community but also because it was obviously dumb for 90% of the Haitians to have nothing to do, while a bunch of rubble still needed to be removed.

Zachary writes:

Sounds like the Haitians understand opportunity costs. Look at it from their point of view: On the one hand you have a foreigner with upwards of 20 years of education leaving his prestigious job to come down and do manual labor. On the other hand you have unemployed and now homeless Haitians who might not have many skills other than the ability to do manual labor. Wouldn't you be be leery of a bunch of well to do foreigners coming into your neighborhood to do nothing more than heavy lifting when everybody who actually lives there is employed only at waiting at the bread line?

Secondly, is there a tradition of volunteerism in Haiti? Is it common for people to voluntarily supply time or money to people outside of their family? Or are they perhaps thinking that "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

Finally, couldn't this project have been implemented by paying Haitians? The higher labor costs would reduce the amount of work that could be done, yes. But would that be balanced by the increased consumption of a group of people who are no longer unemployed? Not to mention that there would be fewer mouths to feed on the island.

Steve Sailer writes:

For generations, there's been a poisonous racial struggle in Haiti between rich mulattos and poor blacks, complete with voodoo curses. The Haitian upper class does not have a lovely reputation.

Haiti is not a place that nurtures a trusting appreciation of the milk of human kindness.

Kurbla writes:

What, if market on Haiti doesn't work, it is people who caused that problem? People should adapt to political system and not vice versa? And it is possible?

And 300 km on the left, on Cuba, there is a planned economy which doesn't work? And now, the system is the problem, not people? It is impossible that people adapt to the system, because economic behaviour is developed through millions of years of evolution?

You cannot have it both way.

Brian Clendinen writes:

I have a friend who works for World Vision. About three weeks after the earthquake he was bringing a truck full of food into the country. He sat there for days trying to get it through customs because of food safety issues. He was very frustrated even though he had worked in Africa for years so he was a old hand at dealing with third world governments.

My response was, "There is a reason Haiti is so poor".

Tracy W writes:

Kurbla, why did you conclude that markets don't work on Haiti? From the article, the author evidently believed that markets do work in Haiti. From his conclusion:

In my brief time in Haiti, I saw the laws of economics at work. Entrepreneurs rushed to satisfy customers, as proven by the owners of motorcycles who suddenly became taxi drivers after the roads were filled with rubble. Government, in contrast, completely failed to deliver promised services to the people.

Do you think the author is wrong? Have you been to Haiti yourself? I never have, so I would be interested in your opinion, if it has some factual base.

Lord writes:

Sounds very Malthusian. Under such conditions volunteerism is counterproductive as it only leads to more mouths to feed. Thus there a culture clash between that and the outside would be expected.

Popeye writes:

Tracy W, Bob Murphy wrote:

But what I am saying is that it makes sense, in a perverse way, that Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere. If this is the predominant mindset, how could anyone start a successful business?

I thought Kurbla's comment was quite insightful.

Tracy W writes:

Popeye - good point - Bob Murphy doesn't seem to have noticed that his empirical observations in Haiti (eg owners of motorcycles becoming taxis, bars still operating) contradict his theoretical musings.

I'm a bit more inclined to believe Murphy's empirical observations over his hypothesising.

Adam writes:

Sounds like the Haitians have it right. Food aid crushes local farmers who can't compete with free food. A flood of volunteer labor drives the local wage down to nil. Once again, good intentions result in bad consequences.

bjk writes:

I don't understand what the "90% unemployed" is supposed to mean. I would guess the employment rate is somewhere north of 99%. They just don't get paid well.

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