The Optimist

The Haitian Migration

Want to help the hundreds of thousands of Haitians still suffering from the 2010 earthquake? Let some of them into the United States.

As we approach the second anniversary of the devastating Haiti earthquake, which killed around 150,000 people and destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, there has been mixed progress.  About half of the rubble has been cleared (if that sounds slow, consider it took five years to remove far less rubble in Aceh after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami). About half a million people are still living in camps in Haiti -- but that is down from closer to 1.5 million two years ago. Meanwhile cholera, introduced by U.N. peacekeeping troops, killed over 7,000 people in the aftermath of the crisis -- the infection rate has abated but the disease remains endemic. 

Progress after a disaster is always slower than hoped.  For all the benefits that the donor community has provided in reconstruction, one reason for the lack of progress is the often snail-like pace of heavily bureaucratized assistance efforts in the chaotic post-catastrophe conditions of weakly governed states.  For example, only about half of the cash promised by donors to Haiti for 2010-2011 had been disbursed by last month -- and the figure for U.S.-given aid is only about 30 percent.  There is still a huge gap between donor disbursement and impact on the ground; a lot of the resources have been disbursed only as far as implementing agencies like NGOs and international agencies, many of whom have yet to spend the cash.

Finally, even when implementing agencies do finally spend that money, much of it will go to pay foreign contractors rather than local people.  According to analysis by the Associated Press, Haitian firms successfully won only 1.6 percent of the value of U.S.-funded disaster recovery contracts issued in 2010. Yes, local firms were subcontractors on many of these contracts, but a large proportion of U.S. funding disbursed to support Haitian reconstruction ended up in the U.S. bank accounts of development contractors. We need more rapid ways to get relief directly to disaster victims, including the hundreds of thousands still suffering in the aftermath of the Haiti quake.

Luckily, we already have one: migration. Immediately after the quake, about 200,000 Haitians living in the United States without proper documents were granted "temporary protected status," which allowed them to work -- and send money home -- without fear of deportation. That single step may be the greatest contribution America has made towards Haiti's reconstruction to date.  That's because the 535,000 Haitian migrants in the United States send home money -- remittances -- worth as much as $2 billion a year.  An early estimate by World Bank economist Dilip Ratha suggested that the temporary protected designation might have been worth as much as $360 million in additional remittances to Haiti in 2010 alone -- that's more than total U.S. aid disbursements to the country in 2010 and 2011.

Beyond being a powerful short-term recovery tool, migration is vital to the long-term development of Haiti as well.  Economist Michael Clemens, my colleague at the Center for Global Development, suggests that four out of five Haitians who have escaped destitution have done so by leaving the country. Meanwhile, the potential benefit of a diaspora for Haiti's future prospects have been repeatedly demonstrated: one need only look at Indians working in Silicon Valley who were key to creating Bangalore's booming IT industry or Africans spending time abroad who are responsible for creating new export industries back home.  Across countries, larger migrant populations lead to greater trade, investment, and learning.

So if the United States is really interested in helping Haiti and other countries get back on track in the aftermath of a natural disaster, it should use migration as a tool for disaster recovery.  And, in addition to the temporary protected status designation, there are two other approaches that can be implemented -- despite the toxic environment for sensible immigration policy on Capitol Hill.

First, the United States has a temporary work visa for low-skilled workers.  The "H-2" program admits about 100,000 migrants for seasonal employment in agriculture and vacation resorts each year.  Haitians are ineligible for the program, however, because the country is not on an approved list maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.  But the administration can add countries to the program list without congressional approval, if the secretary of Homeland Security deems it serves the national interest. Surely fostering recovery in a destitute neighbor counts on that score. 

Michael Clemens estimates that each H-2 worker admitted from Haiti would typically raise their family's income by $19,000 a year -- and that each worker would send as much as 50 percent of their earnings back home. If there were just 2,000 Haitians in the United States under the program in 2012, that would amount to more than $20 million.  That's almost twice the amount that the United States has awarded in contracts to Haitian firms and provided in direct budget support to the Haitian government combined, since the earthquake.

Second, the Department of Homeland Security can selectively grant legal entry to Haitians already approved for a green card -- a permanent residence visa -- on the basis that a family member is a U.S. citizen.  A little more than 112,000 approved Haitians are still on the waiting list, however, because the total number of green cards issued to non-immediate family members is capped worldwide each year.  But there is already a "parole" program for Cubans in similar situations, which allows family members to legally enter the United States and wait for the green card here, rather than in Cuba. The Secretary of Homeland Security is authorized to do exactly the same thing with other countries, and Haiti is a good candidate. Clemens suggests about 16,000 Haitians on the green-card waiting list are spouses or minor children of U.S. green-card holders, for whom the case is particularly compelling -- so let's start with them.

It is worth noting that neither of these proposals would necessarily lead to a larger migrant stock in the United States over the long term. It would simply mean that a few more of the migrants the United States was planning to admit anyway came from Haiti, rather than other countries.  Surely, the desperate situation that Haiti finds itself in, and the powerful boost only a few more migrants would provide to the country's economy, justifies a small reallocation.   


The Optimist

Paving Paradise

A little more concrete 
could save the world. 

It's just a guess, but I doubt concrete would rank high on a list of the world's most loved materials. From Belgrade to Brixton, the antiseptic, brutalist tower blocks of wannabe Le Corbusiers have become eyesores -- vertical slums infested with graffiti and gangs. Twenty-lane highways in Houston are not generally considered a thing of beauty to anyone but transportation engineers. And for each megawatt of electricity produced by China's enormous Three Gorges Dam -- the world's largest concrete construction project -- roughly 77 people were booted from their homes. But what if, at the risk of infuriating Joni Mitchell, the path to paradise really is paving a parking lot?

If you've ever traveled, say, to a remote village in Swaziland and then returned years later to find that the charming dirt road is now paved over, there's a good chance you'll feel a bit of nostalgia for the way things were. Don't. There's also a good chance that the people there now are a lot healthier, happier, and wealthier than they were the last time you visited. All thanks to a little concrete.

Consider what it's like to live in a mud-floor house, as nearly 80 percent of rural Kenyans, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide, do. It is effectively impossible to clean such floors, which is a big reason that more than half a billion people worldwide are infected with hookworm, according to scientist Peter Hotez of the Sabin Vaccine Institute. Walking barefoot on soil floors is one of the most common ways to get hookworm disease -- a parasitic infection in which larvae burrow through skin, lodging in the gastrointestinal tract, living off the host, and making children very sick. Kids with hookworm are less likely to go to school and become healthy adults. The economic impact can be considerable: University of Chicago economist Hoyt Bleakley estimates that children infected with hookworm in the American South in the early 1900s went on to earn 43 percent less in wages as adults.

There are cheap ways to combat such nasty diseases. A package of drugs covering hookworm and a range of parasitic infections costs as little as 50 cents per person per year. Reinfection, however, is frequent, and improper use of the medicine can create drug-resistant strains. What works best? Not drugs, but pavement; it typically costs just a few dollars per cubic foot and can last a lifetime.

Here's proof: Starting in 2000, a program in Mexico's Coahuila state called "Piso Firme" (Firm Floor) offered up to $150 per home in mixed concrete, delivered directly to families who used it to cover their dirt floors. Scholar Paul Gertler evaluated the impact: Kids in houses that moved from all-dirt to all-concrete floors saw parasitic infestation rates drop 78 percent; the number of children who had diarrhea in any given month dropped by half; anemia fell more than four-fifths; and scores on cognitive tests went up by more than a third. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, mothers in newly cemented houses reported less depression and greater life satisfaction.) By 2005, Piso Firme had spread to other states, and 300,000 households -- about 10 percent of dirt-floor houses in Mexico -- had taken part in the program.

It helps if the street outside the house gets paved, too -- not so much for health reasons as for economic ones. Economists Marco Gonzalez-Navarro and Climent Quintana-Domeque found in a 2010 study that paving the street in the town of Acayucan, Mexico, added more than 50 percent to land values and caused a 31 percent rise in rental values. It also considerably increased households' access to credit. As a result, households on paved streets were 40 percent more likely to have cars.

While the concrete mixers are there, why stop at the edge of town? Paving roads in rural areas has enormous human benefits -- and not just by putting millions of people to work worldwide. Research by economists Shahidur R. Khandker, Gayatri B. Koolwal, and Zaid Bakht found that paved roads increased agricultural wages by 27 percent and output by more than 30 percent. It also increased school enrollment by as much as 14 percent.

Even fixing potholes helps -- a lesson that applies as much in Washington and New York as it does in La Paz and Lagos. World Bank estimates for Latin America suggest that if infrastructure were properly maintained, the region's GDP would be boosted by as much as 40 percent.

Of course, there are considerable environmental factors to account for: Making and pouring concrete and asphalt is a big source of greenhouse gases, and roads generate traffic, which means more exhaust and carbon emissions. Not to mention that building new roads in a pristine forest is a pretty surefire way to lose that forest to loggers, often without much in the way of economic returns. Concrete certainly is not a recipe for smart development of the Amazon -- and countries would do well to balance new roads with higher carbon taxes.

But a little concrete can go a long way toward cementing a better life for millions.

Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images