Don’t drop Haiti’s debt

So says David Roodman at the Center for Global Development:

…the practical question for citizens, officials, politicians, campaigners, and other players is whether to push for that. On a few days’ reflection, I say no. I would go so far as to describe such pressure as harmful.

Why? For starters, the benefits of debt relief over the next few years, however done, will be tiny…That’s why cancellation does little good in the short run. It is not a coherent response to crisis. Meanwhile, there are other ways to help Haiti much more, in responding to the crisis and in rebuilding. Looking at the recent history of humanitarian aid, the people who compile the Humanitarian Response Index judge that many official donors could do a much better job. Isn’t this the time for activists to harvest the lessons of history and hold public and private aid agencies accountable? My colleague Michael Clemens has called for a “Golden Door visa” to let more Haitians come to the United States (or other rich countries) to work. Prying the door open a hair more would swamp the economic value of debt relief.

Interesting. David’s model is that there is a fixed quantity of bureaucratic and media attention available for Haiti and that one shouldn’t use it up by focusing on lower priority items. He may be right, but he may not: an alternative view is that one should seize on a simple focal issue and then once you have people’s attention, broaden the scope of political pressure. This isn’t just relevant for Haiti but also, eg, the Bjorn Lomborg criticism of doing something about climate change – which, put simply, is that it’s distracting because the world has higher priorities.

I would like to see a public choice model of such trade-offs. Perhaps Tyler Cowen will oblige.

Meanwhile here is Felix Salmon on why you shouldn’t give money to Haiti.

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.