The Right Size of Government

Some Libertarians apparently believe that government should be very small. Stephen Harper apparently believed this too, which I infer from his scuttling of environmental protections, among other things.

I beg to disagree. I make my case by looking at Haiti, where the government is essentially powerless and the country is, in effect, run by outsiders. Thus the recovery from the earthquake is narrowly focussed, and the actual inhabitants receive little of it and control even less. That is because Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are running the country.

Here you will find a page from which I take the following quotes:

Less than one cent of each dollar of U.S. earthquake relief is going to the Haitian government. As reported by the Associated Press, NGOs working on disaster assistance receive 43 cents, while 33 cents of that same dollar ends up with the U.S. military.

USAID and other government agencies from Northern countries provide 70% of the funding of NGOs in Haiti. The other 30% comes from corporate and individual donations. Thus, the label “non-governmental” is a bit of a misnomer.

Here you will find a page from which I take the following quotes: (emphasis mine)

The wire fence that surrounds Haiti’s National Palace in the heart of the country’s capital has been covered, recently, with a green mesh. Inside, the multi-domed structure has been reduced to rubble, finally knocked down after it was all but destroyed by the country’s deadly 7.0-magnitude earthquake on January 12, 2010.

Several miles northwest of downtown sits the Logistical Base, or Log Base, the headquarters for the United Nations and its recovery efforts. Here, it’s a different world. Within the massive blue-and-white compound are revamped trailers, golf carts and more glistening public toilets than any other place in Haiti. (Log Base is germ—and cholera!—free.) Flowers line the walkways, and machines blow a cool mist into an outdoor restaurant whose menu, on one random day, included sushi, jasmine rice, German potatoes, Brazilian cheese bread, halal shawarma and Häagen-Dazs ice cream. The American dollar, not the Haitian gourde, is the currency of choice.

Shortly after the earthquake, Log Base became the nerve center of the international recovery effort, the place where aid organizations could coordinate reconstruction strategies. At the peak, there were more than seventy coordinating meetings each week among aid agencies and other interested parties— though not all interested parties. Few Haitians can cross from one side of the compound’s walls to the other. To do so requires identification documents and an invitation from someone on the inside, two things very few Haitians have. And when they do, they find that most meetings are held in English, not Creole or even French. When a steering committee for NGO coordination was elected in July 2010 at Log Base, sixty international organizations cast their votes, but since there were no local NGOs present, Haitians were not represented.

Welcome to the NGO Republic of Haiti, the fragile island-state born, in part, out of the country’s painfully lopsided earthquake recovery. On one side are the thousands of aid organizations that came to Haiti with the entire international aid budget in their bank accounts (several billion dollars among them) and built a powerful parallel state accountable to no one but their boards and donors. On the other are the many representatives of the Haitian people—elected officials, civil society leaders, businesspeople—who remain broke and undermined by the very NGOs that swooped in to help. And in between? The Haitian people themselves: impoverished, unemployed, homeless and trapped in a recovery effort that has all too often failed to meet their needs.

What, you may be asking, is my point here? Simply this:

Representative government is what fixes buildings, makes roads and hospitals, collects taxes and funds citizen support systems. There is a right size for such a government, and tiny is not it. If you’ll pardon a bad pun, we have a right to right-size our government. It should make choices that benefit society as a whole. It should not be in the pockets of outside organizations, nor in the pockets of the rich, nor in the pockets of international corporations.

I submit that we need a bit more government here, in Canada. I will dare to suggest that our neighbours to the south could use a bit more too, perhaps achievable simply by giving up on the idea that stopping everything the President wants to do is good politics.

Unfortunately, vested interests tend to stay vested, and to keep over-vesting themselves. So now for the dumb questions:

  • Is it even possible for Haiti to get out of this convoluted, inefficient, ‘recovery?’
  • How long will it take Justin Trudeau to undo 9.5 years of Harper government’s dismantling of academic freedom, environmental protection, and industries other than petroleum-related?
  • Will the Trans-Pacific Partnership give multinationals the right to sue our government for passing laws that, in any way, appear to reduce their profits?
  • Are the above questions related?
  • Are we lucky to have a democracy that at least sort-of works? Or do we?


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