Nation Building in Haiti

Tyler Cowen suggests that Haiti, as a nation, may have just effectively ceased to exist.  Haiti, as a people, is still there.  But the institutions that made up the Haitian nation state, and its economy, have literally been flattened.  Aid agencies usually work through local governments, which already have distribution systems for hospitals and so forth.  But the local government in this case does not really seem to exist at the moment; it has been hollowed out by deaths.  The main port seems to have suffered heavy damage, and while flights are making it to the airport, there's no one there to unload.

This has made it attractive for some of Cowen's commenters to argue that we should basically take the army in there and run the place:  make it Iraq II, without the resistance.  But the reason that Iraq failed is not primarily that Al Qaeda wanted to run the place (they failed too).  The reason it failed is that it's really hard to impose good institutions on someone else's country, not to mention paternalistic.  Why are we supposed to be able to do better this time?  Because they practice voodoo instead of Islam?  There will be plenty of local power-brokers who will be happy to resist any top-down imposition of an outside institutional structure.  I probably would too.

On the other hand,  in the short term, the initial reports make it seem like we're going to have to impose some sort of order just to distribute aid.  At this point, we can assume that people are already dying from lack of medical care, clean water, and relief supplies, and the losses will mount geometrically as days pass.  But there is no one to tell anyone what to do, and no way to tell them, as all communications seem to be knocked out.  Until they're restored, Haiti is effectively in the eighteenth century.

But in the longer run, what do you do for a country that already had one of the worst-functioning governments in the world?  Half the budget was provided by foreign aid before the earthquake.  For the next few years, we will effectively hold government power there, whether we want to or not, because we'll probably essentially be providing all of its funding, and can threaten to turn the taps off unless things go as we demand.