'We Are the World' turns 25: Can a remake resuscitate Haiti?

January 28 marks the 25th anniversary of the USA for Africa recording “We Are The World”, which raised more than $60 million for African famine relief. Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie, who were involved in the 1985 all-star recording, are organizing celebrities to remake the song to raise funds for Haiti relief efforts.

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The remake will hopefully be a launching pad for sustainable change that addresses the fundamental issues of why certain countries are perpetually poor. It also needs to highlight the problematic policies that contribute to this perpetual poverty, within both developing countries and countries that are aid recipients.

After the remake, the artists involved should use their fame to push for the elimination of more than $300 billion in agricultural subsidies that highly developed countries give to their farmers that undermine the developing countries’ agriculture sectors, rewards inefficient agribusiness, and artificially inflates costs for consumers.

They must also shift from a pity-based philosophical framework to highlighting the organic development and management of resources in places like Haiti. These celebrities can draw from their own lives as inspiration: they worked hard to create a product (e.g., music, film) that was of value to others in the free market, and experienced economic growth as a result. Pushing the “trade, not aid” ethic also changes the dynamic where a country like Haiti consumes other countries’ taxpayer dollars and is dependent on private charity to a significantly more equal dynamic that emphasizes production, creativity and trade based on mutual benefit.

We can look at Ethiopia as an example of the ineffectiveness of the pity-based framework. A key reason why Ethiopia, a key country receiving the “We Are The World” aid in 1985, had its famine was due to Marxist policies—policies which remain in place—that prohibit private property ownership and require that land be leased from the state.

With no incentives to improve their lives by benefiting from the fruits of their labor, especially when party membership determines who gets access to leases and credit, there is no incentive to develop land and thus grow the economy enough to outpace population growth and inflation. Ethiopia’s agricultural sector, which employs more than 80 percent of its workforce, is less productive per capita than it was in 1985. Although 60 percent of the country’s land is arable, only 10 percent has been cultivated. No wonder Ethiopia faced another famine last year.

Similarly, while many point to Haiti’s history of European colonialism and U.S. intervention as the source of Haiti’s woes, other Caribbean countries share such history but yet have per capita GDP outputs that are eight to 27 times that of Haiti. Starting a business takes 195 days in Haiti, while the world average is just 35 days.

Property and contract disputes are often resolved based on bribes. These are not policies conducive to economic growth, as they increase the cost of doing business in Haiti. Celebrity performers can use their high profiles to draw attention to these barriers and urge the Haiti government to reduce the red tape in order to build its economy.

They could also use their high profile to urge countries such as Haiti to use the growing revenues from trimming the red tape and corruption to vigorously invest in the greatest natural resource: the human mind. Focus on Haiti’s competitive advantages—which mainly lie in agriculture, tourism potential, and cheap unskilled labor—and build from there. Focusing on competitive advantages is a key way how China and India have experienced significant economic growth, and have moved hundreds of millions out of poverty.