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Jan. 20 2010 - 7:53 pm | 382 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Beware paternalistic prescriptions for Haiti

[I]t’s time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

David Brooks’ Sunday Haiti column has by now been thoroughly deconstructed, but few have compared his paternalistic policy prescriptions to the ones the U.S. government and state and local leaders have already egregiously applied to American Indian tribes and citizens.

Stephen Gasteyer, a sociology professor at Michigan State University, touched briefly on the issue in a letter to the Times:

David Brooks should be congratulated for stating that greater attention to poverty reduction is needed. He is also correct that systemic poverty reduction will result neither through small, nongovernmental efforts alone nor neoliberal macroeconomic policies. There is a growing body of development research now focusing on the importance of cultural change.

But I take issue with his call for more paternalism. United States foreign policy in Haiti has been nothing if not paternalistic. Over the last 20 years the United States has ousted, reinstated, then ousted again Haiti’s leadership. We have consistently worked with international financial institutions to impose neoliberal governance — leaving the Haitian government impotent before the earthquake, and largely invisible since.

Paternalist cultural development policy has led to some of our most shameful legacies (like Indian boarding schools). Cultural change must be locally led to have positive effects — not based on self-righteous proclamations.

Gasteyer’s point on Indian boarding school policy is a big one. Even in light of many Native American families and children saying throughout the 1800s and 1900s that these schools were just not working for them, the federal government and non-Indian “friends” forged on with their mission–often to disastrous effects (broken spirits, rape, abuse, and death were rampant at some of the institutions). At just one such institution, the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, hundreds of Indian kids died during its operation from 1879 – 1918. Ironically, Carlisle was held up at the time as a model of the assimilation era.

History isn’t the only area where American paternalism toward Indians has led to complications. When the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in the early 2000s, there were no provisions focused on the importance of cultural and language learning in measuring a Native student’s progress. No shock, many Native kids initially failed. In time, Indian educators successfully pointed out that this was a flaw of NCLB, and slow steps have been taken to correct it.

It’s now a disaster zone in Haiti, so points on paternalistic policy may seem much too esoteric at the moment. But the issue will not go away, even when the earthquake becomes part of the distant past. Just ask the thousands of tribal citizens in the U.S. today who continue the fight to break free from the aftereffects of the chains of paternalism, while living in extreme poverty (which brings up another flaw in Brooks’ argument: shouldn’t there be very little poverty in Indian populations, given the exceptionally high historical rates of paternalism toward them?).


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  1. collapse expand

    I’m confused, probably, but I read Brooks’ “local paternalism” as paternalism by Haitians themselves. Otherwise, what could “local” mean? Kindly “deconstruct” that for me.

    And, by the way, the common use of “deconstruction” in these posts is a vernacular one, meaning simply criticism. Deconstruction proper is much more complex. And, usually, does not mention penis size.

  2. collapse expand

    The problem with Native American situation is racism and theft. No one outside the reservation will give them jobs (based on their skin color) so they have no money coming in from outside their own recirculated economy. Just like Haiti- what do they export?
    Theft is twofold- one is the Department of interior and EPA limits on the resources (oil, gas, wind, coal) that they can harvest from THEIR OWN LAND! The second is the crooks who are their benevolent government- inept at governing as they were given a job to run their villages like ‘the white man’- they NEVER had a strong central govt. before and they have not been schooled in how to do it (if they even should). Things like schools, alcohol treatment, schools which train more about outside world skills, etc.
    Just my 2 cents worth.

  3. collapse expand

    When did we throw money at poverty?

  4. collapse expand

    HAITI HAS HAD A LOT TO BE GRATEFUL FOR. and more should be done to aid rather than make increase dependency on the world and especially on America. For you never know when help could end.


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    About Me

    I'm a staff reporter for Indian Country Today. I've written for American Indian Report, News from Indian Country, Politics, High Country News, Cultural Survival Quarterly, The New York Sun, The New York Times, The Guardian, and other places. I sometimes appear on NPR to discuss Indian and political issues. I'm a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. I live in metro Washington, D.C. E-mail me: robertcap@gmail.com Twitter: RobCapriccioso

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