What Deforestation in Haiti Can Teach American Politics

Unless you’re an avid reader of United Nations reports about poverty in the Western Hemisphere, you may have missed the news about the disastrous level of deforestation happening in Haiti. Even here, you may wonder why you should care about what’s happening in another region of the world.

Here’s why you should care: what’s happening in Haiti is instructive of how wrong things can happen when generally well-intentioned top-down planners don’t heed the facts on the ground and listen to the people they’re trying to help.

what’s happening in Haiti is instructive of how wrong things can happen when generally well-intentioned top-down planners don’t heed the facts on the ground and listen to the people they’re trying to help.

An article recently published in Vice tells the story. For decades, international development experts have been obsessed with the idea that an amazingly small slice of Haiti — just 4 percent or so of the land in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere — is covered in forest. The catastrophic deforestation has generally been blamed on irresponsible Haitians who chop down trees for charcoal and other uses. (Generally speaking, deforestation creates causes a range of problems, from encouraging erosion to decreasing disaster resistance and groundwater retention.)

The problem with this theory? It’s not true. When geologist Peter Wampler actually visited the country, he noticed trees everywhere. Through in-depth survey work, he eventually discovered that the country is about 30 percent forested — not much to worry about (though Haiti does have problems with erosion in certain places).

he eventually discovered that the country is about 30 percent forested — not much to worry about

Once the international development world had seized on this idea that Haiti was widely deforested — based on 1970s low-resolution satellite images and surveys that didn’t really reach rural areas — they never stopped to think twice. They ramped up program after program to solve deforestation all across the country, using up resources that could have been devoted to better solutions to key problems Haiti faces.

Worse, these development agencies and non-governmental organizations apparently didn’t think much about how Haitians might react to solutions imposed from the outside. Environmentalists and development agencies’ anti-deforestation programs failed for decades because the trees Haitians were expected to help plant would then be owned by the widely distrusted government. In the end, more recent programs that give Haitians real incentives have been much more successful.

This is hardly the only time scientific expertise has failed Westerners who set out to save poor societies from themselves.

International development agencies in Rwanda have also tried encouraging tree planting to shore up its terrain, scorning other solutions preferred by natives. At times, well-intentioned Western do-gooders persuaded the Rwandan government to plant particular kinds trees on a large scale; Rwandan farmers would rip up the seedlings at night.

This should certainly teach us a few things about how to help other countries, but it has lessons for American domestic policy, too. Expertise is important, sometimes scaling up best practices really does work, and certain statistics really do demand our attention.

But many times, that’s the wrong paradigm, even when you’re not dealing with as big a gap in cultural understanding and knowledge as development experts do.

Take the liberal obsession with “deep poverty.” According to certain surveys, millions of Americans live on less than $2 a day, which would make them desperately poor not just in America, but in a country like China or South Africa. Therefore, these experts quickly conclude, we need to pull them out of deep poverty by bringing back large-scale cash welfare without work requirements — i.e., undoing 1996’s welfare reform.

This is an amazing jump from one statistic to a sweeping societal claim. The statistic, for one, probably overstates the scale of this phenomenon drastically, thanks to the fact that this population is hard to track down and represents less than 1 in 100 Americans. The comparison to poor countries is meaningless since the relevant American poverty statistics measure income, while in poor countries statistics measure consumption. And the scholars who have actually talked to the families living on less than $2 in cash income a day don’t think this problem, such as it exists, can or should be wiped out with big new cash transfers.

The comparison to poor countries is meaningless since the relevant American poverty statistics measure income, while in poor countries statistics measure consumption.

There are more examples from the Left: the obsession with comprehensive health insurance, for instance. As Obamacare has cut the number of Americans who lack health insurance, attention has now turned to the “underinsured” — people who have extremely high deductibles or insurance that covers a limited range of services. Left-leaning experts consider this an important problem in health care, but shouldn’t we maybe ask the “underinsured” if they agree?

Can conservatives be guilty of this same mistake? Certainly.

A good example might be concerning marriage and work disincentives. We talk about how the tax code can discourage people from getting married and how the welfare state puts high tax rates (by removing benefits) on lower income people who earn more money. But it’s worth considering evidence that these dynamics are not that powerful — that people get married when they want to regardless of whether it means more in taxes, and take a higher-paying job without much consideration for how much they’ll lose in benefits.

If we actually talk to people who make these decisions, we generally find that sometimes the incentives matter, and sometimes they do not. Losing Medicaid eligibility, for instance, may weigh on people a lot more than seeing their food stamps cut.

If we actually talk to people who make these decisions, we generally find that sometimes the incentives matter, and sometimes they do not.

A few of these lessons may be applied generally. Here, as in Haiti, ownership matters. People won’t tend to efforts where they don’t have buy-in. And given that we already have huge social welfare programs, we should be rigorously assessing what we do know, and how people react to it, just as much as we’re testing out new ideas.

So wouldn’t it be nice if there were some politicians at the federal level who were making a concerted effort to visit poor communities, bypassing the experts and bureaucrats, and just listening?

So wouldn’t it be nice if there were some politicians at the federal level who were making a concerted effort to visit poor communities, bypassing the experts and bureaucrats, and just listening?

In fact, there are. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has been on such a listening tour for years now, forging connections with the neighborhood leaders featured in Opportunity Lives’ “Comeback” series. Five young Republican senators have launched a similar effort, calling themselves the Senate Opportunity Coalition.

There’s nothing wrong with experts, And policies in a country as big as the United States will always involve some generalizations. But it’s always important to get on the ground and make sure ideas match reality.

Otherwise, we could be missing the forest and the trees.

Patrick Brennan is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @ptbrennan11.