Notes on Haiti (see also notes on sustainable partnerships & HDS systems thinking)
P.F. Henshaw contact  1/21/10

Trick question...
Do you know of any economy that was built for someone, by someone else??   It's a trick question because by definition an economy is something that builds itself, and manages its own mistakes!  

Being pushed to change too fast, like Haiti and Mexico were in the recent past, helped produce their present suffering.  That may well come to apply to the developed economies too, as they confront forces requiring them to change ever more rapidly.

This week a variety of Framework systems ecology issues have come up in making comments on responding to the crisis in Haiti. --  This is just cut & paste at the moment, 8 comments on a range of subjects I think might help people  understand the long term risks of helping people the wrong way, and how to find the right way....

2/1/10 - comment on the idea of a "Marshall plan" for Haiti in the news - the wrong solution helps focus the problem

The reason for devastation in Europe in the 1940's had to do with a highly efficient and productive economy, and leaders that turned it to attacking its neighbors. 


Haiti's problem is more or less the complete opposite, a society unable to care for itself made more vulnerable to disaster by decades of well intended but ill-conceived aid.   Real systems need real systems theory, not hapless emotional appeals. 

Take the delayed discovery this week of a better method of distributing food aid.  The news should highlight the real story behind the mental blocks that had prevented doing it effectively before, and how they were overcome.    Giving women food tickets to stand in line to redeem them, ended the mle of people grabbing supplies off the trucks, was a "paradigm shift" in thinking Haitians and aid givers need to repeat again and again.   How that solution was discovered is what needs to be enhanced as a way to discover other solutions for other real problems.   That's the way to help steer Haiti and IT'S OWN CULTURE toward competence in caring for itself.   Grand plans by outsiders to remake their world in the image of the donor's culture will have the usual effect, not work.    -- see below 

1/21/10 Francisco B. B.  Tenure Ecology - correspondence

PFH response: Yes, right.    The US military has apparently seen the need for a major military coordination effort, and it sounds like Obama is fully in support of that. Perhaps the UN and others will be well served with that as a framework in which they can operate.   There will also be a transition from the immediate response to the longer term response.    Coordinating the variety of stakeholders, hopefully using methods like we've been discussing, might allow a well conceived plan to emerge organically, and guide efforts  work in cooperation.   Whether the different players push their own agendas or link opportunities is the question.

FBB response:  Yes, but disaster relief is also needed in the short term. The Earthquakes are also natural disturbances. Haiti is a very complicated situation, because it has very week local institutions. What the other states can do is going to be problematic. Caricom and the UN need to mediate to compensate for the internal weaknesses and external forces need to learn to gradually withdraw as the country emerges from this disaster and its history of dependence and tyranny.

This is not going to be perfect.

PFH response:  1/20/10 Quigley isn't much for making the intentionality he states seem plausible, but I'm glad to have the added historical fragments I can glean from it.  

I guess my standard of care in trying to change that history would be to first try to learn how to offer help that helps.    Too much international "help" is of a kind that just doesn't help.    The recent effort to help Haiti in bringing factory jobs to the island, as part of NAFTA or at about the same time, went along with ballooning the population of the capital by 500% as it monetized their traditional culture and emptied their agricultural villages.  That's what  we were talking about happening in Mexico, all done in the name of "helping".

I suppose half the young countries on earth have this sort of convoluted and troubled history of being buffeted by the colonial powers and the power plays of the rich barons they allowed.     That our understanding of cause & effect and our standards of interpretation keep changing so much makes it hard, for me, to take anything but a scholarly view to understanding the experience, to then do what seems legitimate and possible.     

Wouldn't the first thing be for people to learn how to recognize the existence of natural learning systems and the difference between helping them thrive and intruding on them disruptively?

FBB note: Bill Quigley Countercurrents blog entry on history of disastrous "help" in Haiti  17 January, 2010

 1/21/10 Brian Lehrer show - WNYC radio - Haiti 101  comment 29

The subject of how "developmental change" can work either for or against the success of development efforts is good to have come up. 

It is a subject of natural learning systems and management systems research.   Basically, too fast and you get things like the effect we've seen on Haiti and in Mexico of disrupting integrated communities and driving populations to cities in disorganized ways.  

The key to doing it right is to have the impetus for change come from enabling the local systems. Not shoving them around thoughtlessly, which has often occurred.  Our main problem seems to be a general lack of awareness of how to identify local systems at all. 

I have various parts of that on my site,, and in a review article on the broad spectrum of scientific theories, written for a general readership, on the Encyclopedia of the Earth -

1/21/10 Francisco B. B.  Tenure Ecology - correspondence

I really appreciate your helping me see how monetizing indigenous Mexican societies resulted in their collapse.  

To organize my thoughts:   The key for me was putting together the "push & the pull" of money, how making money desirable connected to making their former products and ways of life unsustainable.     Indigenous peoples are forced to go to cities for money and that breaks up their communities and inherited knowledge, pushing them to adapt in ways they know little about.    So, I agree, the collapse of Mexican corn and its deep culture seems rather directly the result of importing American corn and its fast culture.     

What was promised by NAFTA (for business) was that bringing business culture into indigenous lands would extend the relentless growth of global capitalism.   The degree to which that works appears to be rather slight ... maybe a decade or two before it is so disruptive as to cause the reverse.   The variable as to how enriching or debilitating a business invasion is you might call "cultural tolerance to invasion".   Some cultures may be more flexible than others.   

Our own culture is in danger of the same kind of non-adaptive change, too, and so could suffer consequences not unlike Mexico, Haiti or others.  Adaptation to accommodate the use of different resources and follow different business models is disrupting many of the former ways of life of Americans.  We may well not be able to accommodate them fast enough to avoid societal breakdowns, like already clearly visible in Detroit.   Because it's accelerating we may well not be able to respond fast enough to avoid societal breakdowns.  Maybe that's the underlying complaint of the "populist uprising" we see to change.   Just because "the government & business" say jump, doesn't mean we know how.  Maybe we're being pushed too fast.  

1/19/10 Saundra Schimmelphennig Good Intentions are not enough 

Saundra,  P.S. I'm sure you're busy.   In case you read your mail here's an important follow-up

The disruption of slow adapting indigenous societies with economic invasions is complex, but clearly a major hazard.    Today a friend helped me see how NAFTA worked to monetize indigenous Mexican societies to result in their social collapse.    The Mexican government has partly lost control of some areas, and local armies of drug lords have arisen...    It also seems to apply to how Haiti got where it now is.

That might even be the underlying complaint driving the strange "populist uprising" we see in US politics.   Just because government & business say jump, doesn't mean we know how.     That's a fact.   Maybe we're being pushed too fast, and what's pushing us is doing so unaware of our limits of adaptability

1/20/10 NY Times Blog - How not to help Haiti

I'd like more information on the ways aid, both short term and long term, disrupts local cultures and their sustainability, and to discuss that.   In Haiti over the past 20 years, as in Mexico, there seems to have been economic development that resulted in floods of population to cities and collapses of traditional village cultures with major societal impacts. 

I'm a natural systems scientist.  Cultural systems have their local infrastructure and technologies that develop as a network of parts designed to work together.  How they are pushed to adapt to change can be disruptive.  That applies to indigenous communities or advanced societies alike, as the advanced societies seem to be experiencing now as well. 

Any links or contacts would be welcome.  My contact and other work are at     Phil

1/19/10 Saundra Schimmelphennig Good Intentions are not enough

Saundra,   Thanks so much for bring attention to some of the hazards of well meaning but hurtful aid, and giving out good advice.  

I think about how injured communities operate as living systems, as a systems scientist.    Giving disorganized people money is a problem, and when you have no control of corruption its the worst.   I think that seems to be one of the main causes of our century of grand failures in Africa.    Another is providing symptomatic relief to make recipients dependent on aid, with no follow up commitment to educating them to make them independent again.   It's so sad how that helps create vast slums with multiplying populations.

As a scientist, I think there's a very interesting and curious reason for both of those.    People actually know almost nothing about how social systems really work.  They know especially little about how to control them, especially other people's social systems, and especially when they are injured.    Curiously, that does not stop us from jumping in the middle of them, and passionately making our own waves as if we did know what the effect would be.

Do you know anyone who thinks of these issues?   I find the subject virtually taboo.   But there's also the positive side, like the real reason "the military surge" in Iraq worked, that our government has kept as secret as possible.    Our military quietly started giving the job of local community organization to the local community organizations!!   What a marvelous idea!

The big hazard in Haiti seems to be aid givers making the usual mistake of installing all kinds of systems from our culture, to deliver symptomatic assistance, having no idea how to undo the societal damage that does.     Both of those create major barriers to their regaining their independence.     Haiti is already in that position it appears, and has already been severely harmed by societal control by outside aid givers.     Foreign aid was allowed to become its major industry I've heard said by insightful locals.     That's a disaster in and of itself.

Wish I could help.

1/17/10 Left Rt & Center  pundit banter

Asking why there is such poverty that disasters become so tragic is the first step.   Few even show that much curiosity.    The real reason has virtually nothing to do with the empathy of others.   The US didn't become rich because of the empathy of others.    We became rich because we built things that worked.

The real cause of poverty is that the poor don't know what to do with their resources and so what they build is really a waste of effort and falls apart.   The problem with trying to help others get better at building things is that relieving suffering with aid does not inspire the poor to become competent.   

The crime in how people have always aided the poor, decade after decade, is that it just treats the poor as puppets in our theater, in effect, telling them to "be like us" and telling how to behave like us, when that is not ever how things build themselves, and so doesn't work any better than their efforts on their own behalf.  

All of nature is produced by things organizing *themselves*.    Nothing ever organizes some other thing.    That's, because organization develops INSIDE what it is that is growing.    It requires a foundation of the basic competence of the parts, and it requires resources.    "Getting organized" also requires creativity and hard work.   First of all, though, it requires a real curiosity about discovering how to do it.   

The Chinese spent thousands of years actually, not being curious about how to do capitalism.    Now that capitalism is in crisis, still modeled to grow forever even as it collides with the limits of the earth, is somehow the moment the Chinese finally "get the idea" to be curious about how to do that.    It's rather ironic.    How nature works is about systems.

1/16/10 Dot Earth - Model for New Security Role  comment 33

The need for short term solutions tends to distract attention from long term problems, i.e. only solving short term problems.  

 Most of Haiti's real problems come from decades of aid that addressed short term problems but failed to help Haitians become self-sustaining, continually depleting their resources and growing their population.  The problem with "the poor" is that they don't know what to do with their resources, and those trying too help don't either.  

 That combination can just go to letting what starts with incompetence just amplify incompetence.   Sustainable economies can't be given away, but only develop for communities on the foundations of their own competence.  Aid goes mostly goes for easing discomfort, and that has the opposite accumulative effect.

 We are in the same pickle ourselves, with most of our resources going to easing the discomfort of becoming short on resources, promising ourselves if we just spend them faster we'll "strike it rich" and find limitless resources  again, just around the corner.  That's incompetence.   That could well leave us with no time and no resources to learn how to live sustainably when something happens to upset our delicate balance leave us no leg to stand on, just like the Haitians.