You are here
Help that hurts: An interview with Tim Schwartz about Haiti
Tim Schwartz is an anthropologist with extensive experience in the foreign aid sector in Haiti. He is the author of the book, Travesty in Haiti, and of an upcoming book studying the nature and problems of the ways nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Haiti. He answered my questions over email in February and March 2012.
Justin Podur (JP): One of the themes of Travesty in Haiti is that the international 'help' that is going to Haiti isn't really helping. The starkest example for me was the food program, in which food was delivered only when it wasn't needed. Can you explain that a little bit, how you came to find out about it, and what happened when you tried to tell people about it? And is it still the case today?
Timothy Schwartz (TS): Back in the mid 90s I was doing my Master’s and then PhD research in the heart of CARE's rural activity zone. CARE was USAID's biggest food distributor in Haiti. I wasn’t really studying food aid, but I couldn’t help but notice it. It was huge. And it was being distributed wantonly. Not just by the US. The Germans, the French, the Northern Europeans, they were all there. For me, living with peasants and fisherfolk at the time, it was not at all clear that they even needed food aid. When it did come in, it was often a bizarre and poorly targeted endeavor that arguably did more to crash prices than feed those who were really hungry.
For example in 1991 and 1992 the area was suffering a severe dought. One and a half years after the drought started CARE decided that the region was on the brink of a massive famine. So they got the attention of USAID and they began bringing in the food. They brought in a lot of it. For the first four months or so they were feeding some 200,000 people. Then they decided that wasn’t enough and they upped the figure to some 800,000 recipients, and not just in the drought area. They were feeding people all the way to Gonaives, an entirely different climatic zone but in CARE’s activity area. To make sure the people were really getting fed they actually cooked the food. They set up kitchens and fed people on the spot, or at least they thought they were feeding all those people on the spot. There was a lot of corruption. But no matter what, CARE and USAID did were doing a great thing. I don’t think anyone would argue that. There was a famine looming and this was also during the international economic embargo against the military junta.
Now here’s the punchline: The drought ended six months after the feeding started. But that didn’t stop CARE and USAID from continuing the program for 2 years. And if you don’t believe that is hard on the economy note that CARE evaluated the nutritional status of children in the region when they started the program. They wanted to be able to demonstrate that when the feeding effort was over they had improved the nutritional status of children. But when they checked two years later they found that 20% more children were malnourished than when they started. That’s a statistic they didn’t send out in their reports to donors.
In 1997,they were doing it all over again. I was doing a survey for the Germans and French. To see for themselves if the Northwest was in the throes of a severe drought, a team of US congressmen flew by helicopter into the Village where I was -- literally blowing the roofs off of three houses. They decided that yes, it was dry up there and people needed help to avert a famine. And so they authorized the World Food Program to send in emergency food.
And so they did. Twelve months later, after the drought was over and in the middle of the a bumper crop.
A couple of years later, in 1999, they did the exact same thing.
And that’s just three of many examples. When I actually sat down and charted food aid arrivals and crisis and drought I got a better fit going in the opposite direction. Instead of finding more drought, more aid, I got more rain, more aid.
So anyway, I started collecting data and everyone was very good about allowing me access to food distribution data for my dissertation. I got data from CARE, from German and French food distribution organizations and Haitian peasants, from NGO reports. I also interviewed or discussed food relief with literally every aid worker out there. No one I talked to could sustain an argument that food aid was not disrupting the market and hurting domestic production. The only people who defended it were people in positions to make money on it. Like the drug dealer who tells you how cocaine is simply a free market phenomenon: they might be right but it’s no secret why they feel so strongly about it.
In any case, that’s what got me so wound up about aid. How could we be doing something so obviously destructive, so clearly working against what we were hoping to accomplish, everyone saw it, and yet we went right on doing it.
Let me correct that, we go right on doing it, because it is far worse now then it was back then. And it’s worse despite a huge chorus of loud voices condemning it, including Oxfam, Clinton, the Haitian Government. No one seems capable of stopping it and replacing it with a system of purchasing food from locals.
And just for the record, it’s by no means me who saw this first. Development workers and educated Haitian nationals have long known that food aid can lower prices for local farm produce, bring production down, and introduce different food preferences. Many of these points were made in an excellent book by De Wind and Kinley (1988) called Aiding Migration: The Impact of Development Assistance. In 1997, Laura Richardson of Grassroots International circulated a petition making many of these points. She was invited to host a meeting with donors and big NGOs involved in food distribution. They concluded, even though everyone knew what she was saying was true, that there was no substance to her complaints - because she didn't have any hard data. And here’s something that might shock you. Former director of USAID in Haiti. a guy named Harlan Hobgood. He was USAID Haiti director in 1980- 83, something like that. He recently wrote a review of my book. He says that he was telling the State Department and Congress back then that what they were doing with food was wrong, that it was not helping Haiti. And by the way, it is currently happening on a scale far greater than ever before. And there appears to be no slowing it down. I was hired last year by Fintrac, and organization that works in food aid and that had contracts with USAID to promote production in Haiti. I’ve written several USAID funded reports in recent years where I got an opportunity to highlight the contradictions in food aid in Haiti and the foregone opportunities to focus on production. For example, in Africa, in countries where the US does not have preferential access to the markets, it is heavily funding the production of cassava flour and cassava products. This could be done in Haiti but it isn’t. Anyway, the same USAID “Food for Peace” officer who was in when I did research in the late 1990s came back after the earthquake and one thing she did very early on is forbid people from hiring me. When the people trying to hire me asked why, she said that I had written “scathing critiques of food aid”--which is, by the way, why they hired me. When I asked other people i know inside USAID why, one of them said “three words: Build Food Empire.”
JP: You went to Haiti after the earthquake, and came up with an idea to use local taxis for transport, which you wrote about somewhat self-deprecatingly in your chapter in Paul Farmer's Haiti After the Earthquake. But a structural problem made it impossible for your idea to be used, a structural problem that is illustrative. Can you talk a bit about that problem?
TS: The structural problem you’re referring to is how the rescue workers, NGOs and USAID, CIDA and all the militaries that had come to help are not adaptive on the ground. They follow procedures, so money has to be channeled in certain ways. They could not include local Haitians, or were at least restricted in how they went about it.
Interestingly in that respect, one thing that I didn’t mention in that article is that there is/was this system for doing that. They have to go through a hiring process. In the midst of the taxi debacle, I kept running into these Haitian translators in the process of being hired. Different NGOs were hiring dozens of them. Most were these high school and college aged young males who had taken an english course or two.
Not to stray too far from the subject, but that’s another structural problem. Haitians have this rigid division of labor such that someone with a little education tends not to be flexible. What I mean is that your typical college person doesn’t know how to drive a motorcycle, won’t lift anything because they are above that. They also won’t wash the dishes or sweep the house. These are all culturally specific things, logical in the context of Haiti but alien to most people from developed countries. So in an emergency situation like the post earthquake, for every translator you would then need a motorcycle taxi and then to lift people you might need to hire yet another guy. All that can be overcome, but the NGO worker who needs the translator isn’t going to know or figure that one out in the middle of a disaster when they’ve just arrived in Haiti for the first time. And again, in the case of the taxis doesn’t matter because they were not even equipped or disposed to hire them.
So all of this points to what I was really after in that article and that’s the problem of the NGOs not working with locals. Call it “structural” if you want to. Not a bad term for it. The NGOs, rescue workers, military, are not ‘structured’ to work with the local population. They’re outsiders. The locals know what and where the problems are, who’s suffering, and how to best deal with it. They also know their way around. The incredibly absurd thing about the taxi experience and my involvement is that it began because people kept asking me to find things for them or lead them somewhere. I’m a foreigner too. I hardly knew Leogane. I had to ask the taxi drivers. This problem I’m describing permeated every aspect of the rescue phase and really permeates every aspect of aid in Haiti, past and present. That’s what kinda makes the story about the Taxis useful. It’s a very neat example of how and why aid fails, or at best is absurdly wasteful and inefficient.
JP: You have been involved with Haiti for a long time, through different administrations, coups, and now with MINUSTAH. The issues of international aid, charities, orphanages, and missions persist regardless of the political changes - but maybe there have been some differences? How would you characterize things in the 1990s compared to today? Would you say there were different phases? Have there been any changes, for good or ill, to the situations you described in Travesty?
TS: Really, I haven’t been as deeply involved in aid as some think. There are tens of thousands of people much more deeply involved than me, people with long and impressive cvs. I know people who do more consultancies in a year than I do in five years. They make big bucks. Some of them are damn good at what they do. But what happens to most is that they get so involved in aid that they can no longer see the system. They complain about the failures and shortcomings but they’ve become absorbed by it, despite their critique they begin to believe in it.
I’m not knocking those people and I’m not saying the system is evil. Those are other issues. What I mean is this: Whenever I have a job with an NGO, I usually wind up spending a lot time with staff, with directors, agronomists, social workers. And when you are talking to those people all the time, they complain and they tell you all about all the different failures, but they almost always are telling you how they are part of fixing it, how everything is changing now, it’s all going to be alright. I think one of the qualities that NGOs wind up selecting for is people who are optimistic and can put a positive spin on miserable failure. After all, that’s the people who the administrators and donors back in the States or Germany or wherever are going to be encouraged by. Everyone in the NGO chain is getting paid to take bad news and somehow make it good. If you’re not doing that, well then I think it’s just the nature of the system/beast that you’re not going to be around long.
Where I have an advantage is that I’m not really an aid worker. I’m an academic who works in the field of aid. I’m not a paid academic, but that’s what I care about, research and writing. And because of tendency to look for untruths and contradictions and to include them in my work and share them, that’s what makes me different. I’m stil fresh and I haven’t gone away. The other side is that this pattern means that I don’t work much. I keep getting seen as a threat and even blacklisted. Most recently by USAID staff. Even though organizations have tried to hire me in the past year USAID, and even though I have never been accused of doing anything out of line and by all accounts USAID staff respects my work, they keep refusing to approve my employment (they fund much of the consultant work and hence have to approve of consultants). Which is tough, by the way, because I do basically live in the field. I don’t have a University position or a job in Washington think tank. When I go home it’s often to a houseful of people who qualify as aid recipients. When one of my kids I support gets sick their mother goes to the public hospital or the local NGO clinic. I have very close relationships with people who I might run into waiting in any given World Food Program line or who have their child in a mission school. I can’t explain to you exactly why I live like this, why I don’t just try and get a steady job. Whatever the reason, it can be tough.
But getting back to the main point, the hidden advantage for the academic part of me is that I have not gotten sucked into the vortex, so to speak. I’m still more outside the aid system than inside and so see aid more from the perspective of beneficiaries than the people delivering it, the ones who have to make it sound as successful as possible so that they can keep their jobs, so that they can keep the machine running, keep those cogs turning.
As for the changes in aid since I did my research in the 1990s and early 2000s: It’s the same problems, same processes, same projects, same good parts, same problems, same massive failures, and it’s all a lot bigger. It was already swelling before Gudu-Gudu (what Haitians call the earthquake), but since then it’s turned it into something mammoth. The NGOs quite literally took Haiti over for a while and arguably they’re running the country now. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. Not saying it’s good either. But it’s easy to make the case. The most illustrative point is the role of Bill Clinton; he was already was the de facto leader of the US NGO world by virtue of the Clinton Foundation. With regard to Haiti, even before gudu-gudu the UN had made him Special Envoy to Haiti, essentially giving the country to him as a type of project. And since the earthquake, he has played that role to such a degree that he co-chaired the IHRC (Interim Haitian Reconstruction Committee) with the Haitian prime minister under Preval; then when formation of the Martelly administration began wavering he stepped in with a member of his own staff as PM candidate. No one could say no. If parliament had tried to reject Clinton’s candidate they would have been putting the entire 10 billion aid package at stake.
Haiti is a ward of the international community in almost every respect: from UN stabilization forces, to the school lunches to the government budget. And NGOs are sitting at every decision making table. US food aid is feeding, or supposed or be feeding, more than half of all Haitian children. There is a lot of hype to the contrary, that we are going to change the American Plan, that we are going to promote peasant production, that Haiti has a strong new government. It’s all very hard to believe. The New American Plan reads just like the old one--sweatshops, food aid.... The only exception is peasant agriculture and they’ve done more in the past two years to destroy that then ever before. Same old game, more intense.
JP: Can you give some examples about where aid money goes and where it ends up?
TS: First off, the money for rescue and recovery had gone almost entirely to NGOs and UN agencies. The rescuers cost an average of US$2.5 million for each of the 132 people they rescued. We know what they did with the money and why they needed it. They paid salaries and overtime, and danger pay, and they paid for jet transport and for the some 620 tons of equipment they brought with them, including the air conditioners for their tents. So we know why the emergency rescuers cost so much. The question then is, ‘what’d the NGOs and UN agencies do with the money we gave them.’ Anyone who tries to do the research will find themselves bogged down in a quagmire of reports, prevarications, and refusals to provide information. The NGOs and UN agencies are structured and regulated in such a way that they simply will not provide specifics. Try to get the information yourself. They will not tell you. Some will respond the way that World Vision originally responded to me, saying that, ‘sorry….our donors do not give us money to waste answering questions and doing research.’ Those that do respond will only give laundry lists of bottled water and sanitation and people treated.
There are a few reasons for this. a) There is no incentive to be accountable and efficient and keep costs down, b) in many cases they don’t even know what they’ve done, c) they can’t tell us that they have failed, donors don’t want to hear that and the guys back at HQ ain’t going to pass that message on, d) they don’t have to tell us when they failed on screwed up. All those points come back to the last and most important point: accountability. They don’t have to tell us. There is no one person or no one thing that forces the NGOs and UN agencies to give us good accounting for their expenditures.
But we really don’t need them to tell us anything, not if we are only interested in a general idea of where the money went. All you have to do is perform the basic math. Journalists are fond of saying that there are 10,000 NGOs in Haiti. Well there aren’t (there might be as many as 2,000). But let’s be conservative and say there were 10,000 aid workers in Haiti after the quake. Now figure that everyone one of them is making $200 per day. Some less, some a lot more. But if we take $200 as an average that’s 730 million per year. Per diem is at least another average of 100 per day (some get a lot more); that’s another 365 million. A vehicle and driver cost $150 per day, so let’s say that for every two foreign aid workers there is one vehicle. That’s another 750,000 per day; 274 million per year. So now we are at 1.369 billion per year and we have not even begun to talk about all the educated nationals who are working for aid agencies, the secretaries, administrators, and then the security guards and cooks and cleaners. Nor have we mentioned the inflated rents (~$3,000 per apartment; $6,000 to 10,000 for an office), hotel rooms ($100 per night and up), air line flights (those to the DR tripled in cost after the quake, going from US$150 per round trip to US$500), then all the equipment for offices, the trucks.... Nor have we said anything about the 20% to 50% of the money that went back to the home office to cover the considerable administrative expenses there. So if we’re spending at least 1.3 billion per year or more on administration and there was 2.7 billion in charity spent over a period of 2 years. Where’d it go? This is rough accounting but it’s a good approximation and it’s enough to say with confidence--and without the aid agencies giving us the information that they won’t give--that most of did not and does not get to the poor Haitians for whom we intended it. The same process is duplicated to a much great extreme in the national and international agencies that received money from governments. Without getting into all the details, a UN consultant gets a per diem of US$284 per day. That’ before salary. Again no one has had the energy or disposition to get into the actual expenditures on the poor, but that’s another type of shame.
As an example, look at water. Every one of the big NGOs made a huge deal about getting water to the “survivors,” as they called virtually everyone in Port-au-Prince and the outlying areas around the city. Just look at their list of items given to the camps. Water, water, water. If it’s not the principal expense in the first year after the earthquake it’s surely one of them. Now look at the costs of water and where it was coming from. After the earthquake NGOs were importing bottled water from the states and Europe, flying it in. But there was plenty right here in Haiti. Many local water companies had to close up and wait for the aid agencies to finish spending their money so that they could begin to sell water again. The NGOs also started purchasing water from Haitian distributors at 300% of cost. I’m talking about the tankers of water. It was the same water available before the quake. Nothing had changed there. The rivers still ran. The springs didn’t disappear. Most water lines were intact. In fact most tanked water in Port-au-Prince comes from the same place, right next to the US embassy, stone’s throw from the airport. And the number of people had not increased; indeed it had significantly decreased because not around to drink water or bath in it and wash dishes and clothes with it were the people who were killed and the some 500,000 who left Port-au-Prince, or the 37,000 elite--all big water consumers--who went to the US. And even today, if an NGO orders a truck of water there is a 20% sur charge beyond what a private citizen pays to fill his or her cistern. That’s common knowledge. And the NGOs just accept that, one example of how the NGOs don’t make any effort to keep costs down and how Haitian businesses and individuals react by gauging them. Mind you, I’m not against giving water to people who are thirsty, but the waste and mismanagement is appalling. And no one is even checking; i am not aware of a single published market analysis of the water situation. Did the NGOs waste 10s and even 100s of millions of dollars on water? Does anyone want to know? Does it matter? Should anyone care? Most people just assume that it was necessary and in the best interest of the poor.
Here’s another important point to understand with regard to what happened to the money. Many activists, since the beginning of the recovery, have complained bitterly about the NGOs and UN agencies not spending money. There is a problem here. One of the things I did not mention above is that the UN and NGOs were and still are largely incapable of effectively spending the amount of money that came in at anywhere near the rate that many donors and activists hoped they would. That’s not their fault. Well, perhaps they should be better prepared. But the point is that they did not and do not have the administrative systems in place to do it efficiently and effectively and the pressure to force them to do so is part of the problem. That’s one of the reasons for all the water and why they were perfectly happy to pay 300% of what it should have cost and to this day don’t fight back against paying an informal 20% surcharge. Water is easy; easy to buy and easy to distribute. It shows that they are doing something. Legitimately inflates their expenses. And once you’ve given it out you don’t have to explain because it’s gone, people drank it or bathed with it. And who’s going to question giving out water (apparently no one). But the money donated by goodhearted citizens of the world and Haitian Diaspora would have been better put in foundations and conserved until the NGOs, Haitian Government, and UN agencies had the wherewithal to make it effective and to account for it. That’s one of the greatest shames of the recovery effort. The NGO and UN directors should never have succumbed to the pressure to spend. They should have admitted and even insisted on their limitations—as many did early on—then stuck by their guns and made sure that the money was effectively spent. If not, leave it in some kind of escrow accounts…or why could it not have been managed in some type of foundation.
JP: Who would you say is principally responsible for this situation? Is it the donor governments? The agencies? Or the NGOs that use the funds?
TS: An anecdote: Shortly before the earthquake I was sitting in the Petionville Club with a group of NGO and USAID big shots. It was kind of a special moment for me. I’ve always been an outsider, more likely to be found in the kitchen with the cooks than at the main table. Suddenly, because of the last book I wrote, I’m inside, sitting there in the most elite club in Haiti with all these aid experts. I find myself in a kind of argument with a woman who works for Save the Children. It was completely unexpected. I’m trying to be one of the guys, so to speak, so I’m blabbing on about a program for children and how it’s based on misinformation. It turns out that the woman I’m talking to ran the program. But, instead of continuing to defend the program she says something that completely threw me for a loop, she says, ‘it’s not our fault. It’s the donors fault. They keep giving money without verifying what’s really going on. Of course people are going to keep coming up with stories… they create the opportunity… they create the problem.” At some point she finishes saying that, ‘donors are paying to feel good and so they get what they paid for.’ The point is disturbing but rather profound. She was saying that that NGOs give a service by taking money from donors and assuring them that it is well spent; the service is that the donor feels good.
So, one might extend the argument, to hell with whether the aid really helps some needy Haitian, the real service is paid for and delivered, the person paid for a good feeling and NGO gave it to them The NGO reciprocated with a lot of heartwarming stories about little Manuchka in school, or some Market woman who can borrow money to trade (she borrows it, by the way, at about 3 to 4 times the rate that we would pay for a loan).
The experts on this issue of accountability—or lack thereof-- consistently report that the reason is because people in the charity ‘business’ insist that they are above accountability, it’s a moral endeavor. In one sense I can’t help but observe, ‘what a wonderful place for con artists and thieves.’ All they have to do is ask for the money, say it’s for a hungry child and shazam, they’re covered, safe, no one will ever come after them. And they’ve given the donor that good feeling they were paying for. I have to confess, though, most people I’ve ever met in the aid business are good folks, sincere, honest. I would argue--and have elsewhere--that it’s the system that corrupts. But ok, cutting to the big agencies, the bottom line is that even if you want to make them accountable, try to get the information you need to do that. Good luck.
JP: At the end of Travesty, you propose a mechanism to try to bring some transparency and accountability to the work that NGOs are doing in Haiti. Has there been any progress on this front? Would you propose any changes to that mechanism a couple of years later?
TS: when Travesty began to get read and people reacted, some asked me, ‘so what do we do?’ Saying ‘pack up and go home’ isn’t a sufficient answer. And while I sometimes think that might be best, it ain’t going to happen. So if we’re going to have aid, we should at least try to make it good aid, effective aid. And the first step in doing that is obvious:: count the projects, document what they’re spending, a quick measure fo what they’re getting done, a rapid systematic survey of beneficiary opinions and make it public, let the NGO directors, the donors, beneficiaries and anyone else have access to it and comment online. Same with all the NGO reports, all of them. Get them on a single Amazon type web site where people can read, review, comment and rate them. Let’s make development a transparent, participatory process where all the stakeholders know what’s going on and they all have a voice. And that’s the Donor Guide. Why everyone isn’t all for such a painfully obvious mechansim and why they haven’t done it a long time ago is a disturbing question and should raise some strong suspicions about the committment of many of the big NGOs. If they are sincere, they should see such a project as a service and not a threat.
By the way, it’s not some radical idea I had while putsing around in the Haitian outback. It came out of encouragement from Paul Farmer. In 2009, the Special Envoy’s Office wanted to do something about actually figuring out just how many NGOs are out there. And there was a lot of talk about accountability. Clinton, Farmer, the Haitian PM, everyone was talking about accountability in the NGO sector. And so it just seemed like a natural move. And surveys are what I do, that’s my speciality. So I wrote Paul in late summer of 2009 and offered to help come up with a plan and to go out there and actually count the projects. He encouraged me to come up with a proposal and even gave me a liason person in the Special Envoy’s Office at the UN in New York . We set to work. There was a lot of hope. And then in November of that year, about the time that I was finishing the proposal , the Haitian Prime Minister, Mme Pierre-Louis, got deposed. That really shook everything up. In the end it was decided not to include my proposal in recommendations to Clinton or the State Department. The decision was that the Haitian Government had to do that (my reaction is that if they could they wouldn’t need the NGOS). So for the time being the hope was dashed. But for me it wasn’t over. I had aleady started to drum up support. I had USAID guys interested. I had visited with Jean Robert Estime, , a former minister and also son of Dursormais Estime, a popular former president. Jean Robert is current Haitian Chief of Party for Chemonics--Washington’s biggest for profit consultancy in the country-- and he was very encouraging. Then came the earthquake and accountability was a bigger issue than ever. There was a lot of money on the table for it too. USAID had something like 40 million specifically for monitoring and evaluation. And naturally, a lot of people came out of the woodwork to create more NGOs that would make the other NGOs accountable. There are still half a dozen of them. Not a single one really does much. They ask NGOs for reports and they criticize and there have been some qualitative studies. But I can’t point to a single concrete product. Qualitative summaries of some camp or a couple activities is about it. And I am not even aware of a single concrete proposal to change that and do systematic and comprehensive evaluations. Nothing but the Donor Guide.
They just aren’t doing anything with teeth and it’s rather shocking that no one is even proposing it. One reason is that its just too much work for most people who are interested in the NGO field. Some of the more serious actors I’ve approached shake their head and say it’s too big. And there would be no fudging. You either get the information or you don’t. You succeed or fail. So anyway, I never stopped trying. I know it can be done. I’ve done similar things. I’ve been on the ground locating and evaluating projects. Haitians who live out there know it can be done.
And there are people like Stephan Grandvaux and Brad Knollenburg, college students who pushed me and volunteered their time to help refine the project, they’ve been a tremedous inspiration and kept it alive. So yes, I’m still trying. I’ve put the project in front of Cheryl Mills at the State Department and in front of the directors at USAID. And Paul Farmer still assures me that we have his support. In the meantime I’ve become an M&E expert, that’s what I do for work. So I have my fingers on the state of the art mechanisms, i understand USAID indicators and how they evaluate their own projects--they have a good system and they know what needs to be done, now if someone could convince them to support doing it for everyone. There is also some hope that George Washington University might be stepping up the plate. There’s a guy there named, Bob Maguire, he’s an old Haiti guy, a charismatic Wizard of Oz type who unbeknownst to most has pulled strings behind some of the most successful development and organizational initiatives in Haiti. He’s encouraging and has kept the hope alive. So we’ll see. But until now it’s another structural dilemma. No one seems willing to take the plunge and fund it.
JP: Do you think that the aid industry does more harm than good, on balance?
TS: That’s a big question that deserves a big answer. I won’t speak about other countries. What i really know is Haiti. It’s a small country and you can get a handle on what is happening there. So regarding Haiti, if I had to say yes or no, I would say yes. But you have to consider politics and everything else that is going on at the same time. None of them are isolated processes. But to get to the most important point, we can’t cut off the aid because, however we got here, Haiti now depends on it. The trick is to fix the aid, to steer it into line with the best interests of building a solid and integrated Haitian State that reinforces Haitian productive enterprises and social institutions. As Bob Maguire would say, help Haiti build from the bottom up. “Bottom up development.” We need to stop trying to remake Haiti from the top down using designs pushed by overseas special interests; instead we need to focus on what’s good for the Haitian people and their economy, bottom up.
I don’t have space to really elaborate on this point but let me give you one example. One of the biggest expenditures in the wake of the earthquake was rubble clean up. We all knew that. With the money made available we could have orchestrated a cleanup that involved the some 3 million unemployed Haitian men --and women as well. We could have simply bought rubble at disposal sites and let the Haitian poor bring the rubble in with wheel barrows and their own little trucks and horse carts. The international community paid an average of US$40 per cubic meter for rubble. If it was just wheel barrows doing the clean up then at 6 cubic feet in a standard wheel barrow and 10 million cubic meters of total rubble, that would have been 40 million wheel barrows of rubble. So If 1 million men pushed one wheel barrow per day to the dump site, cleanup would have taken about 40 days; and it would have put US$400 million directly into the hands of the Haitian poor. It is also worth pointing out that those poor would have made US9 per day in the process, that’s twice what the UN was paying participants in their cash for work programs (US and UN cash for work programs never amounted to more than a small fraction of the rubble removal. For example, in he first year USAID invested 17 million in cash for work versus some 100 million in rubble removal. Moreover, much of the cash for work activities were frivolous such as cleaning the streets and picking up trash ).
This is a simplification of the issue but in practice it would have been even more dynamic. An economy would have emerged around the sale of rubble. It would have included small and large local trucks, people carrying buckets on their head, men would have been retrieving far more than one wheel barrow per day and the money for the rubble would have been pumped straight into the bottom of the Haitian economy creating a massive economic stimulus. Instead, the money went into the pockets of foreign corporations that specialize in disaster cleanup, such as DRC and AshBritt and to Haitian millionaire entrepreneurs such as Gilbert Bigio who partnered with those organizations. It also went to the for profit consultant agencies DAI and Chemonics and to the NGO CHF that handled the administration of the rubble cleanup. They took two years to clean up. They’re still cleaning up. And a massive scramble for contracts occurred such that the going rate if you could just land the contract was 200 payoff per truck. That me say that again: I was approached on two occasions and offered 200 per day per truck if i could facilitate obtaining a contract. That’s me. I’m not even inside on trucking and rubble cleanup. Imagine what people were really making. On top of all that was an administrative mountain of bureaucratic spaghetti that cost hundreds of millions more. But if we had depended on the people we have come to help, if we had simply paid Haitians to clean up their own rubble, all of that would have been unnecessary as the rubble would only have to be weighed and purchased at the dump site. Instead, the bulk of the Haitian urban population sat there, unemployed or engaged in petty economic activities and watched US and Canadian and Haitian Elite-owned-dump trucks gathered up and brought in the rubble. As Haitians on the street were saying at the time, ‘rubble could have been gold.’
JP: I heard you are working on another book. Can you give us a sneak preview?
TS: Yes, I’m working on another book. This one is a cross between Travesty and an academic book I wrote, (Sex, Family and Fertility in Haiti). It’s part anecdotal in that it chronologically follows my experiences after the earthquake. When the quake hit I was in the neighboring DR with a Foreign Service friend of mine and another pal who is retired ex special forces. They were terrific people to be with in this situation because they are both accustomed to being in powerful administrative positions and in the midst of disasters and wars all over the globe. They gave me fantastic insight and they gave me confidence. They also confirmed for me that no, I’m not over-reacting with my exasperation at how dysfunction aid is in Haiti; it is indeed a chaotic mess; the earthquake brought it all out in stark and horrifying relief.
The three of us were in Haiti before sunrise the next morning. Because I was with an embassy official I got an inside look at what was going on at the Embassy, with the State Dept and in USAID. At the same time I was on the ground working as a driver, guide and translator for rescue workers. It was a lousy experience but gave me a lot of energy to write and do research. From the second week on I worked as a journalist. The second and third month I was doing consultancies for food monetization and evaluations of the economic impact of the earthquake. I had also been working in Port-au-Prince on USAID funded research for some four months leading up to the earthquake. So I was in the mix like I’ve never been before. Not only on the ground but with guys inside. I was able to do a lot of research on my own as well. For me, as a researcher focusing mostly on Haiti and accustomed to to being on the street or in the countryside with the poor looking up at the system and trying to figure out what the hell is going on, it was a terrific opportunity to document and try to undertand the system.
And as the recovery effort unfolded I was able to follow it both in the press as and from the inside. Beginning 9 months after the earthquake, I spent some 6 months working with USAID. I was in contact with all the top consultants, literally living with some of them. These are oldtimers, 30 year USAID retirerees, former mission directors, At the same time, because of Travesty and the attention it was getting, I had a lot of journalists buying me dinner and drinks. I had people like Sean Penn contacting me. Sean introduced me to Martelly, the current president. Yet, through most of this, I’m still a semi-broke anthropologist on a motorcycle with no legal papers, slipping across the border in the mountains or riding the bus back and forth to the DR, sitting in the midst of poor Haitians and living with them part time as well. So I had a broad perspective. And then with the research I was doing, the data I was collecting, it’s tough to be objective about ones one work but I think it’s fair to say that it’s unique and it’s holistic.
What I was able to see is that the Haiti being sold in the press and to donors is not reality. Not even close. In almost every count the earthquake was inflated by a factor of about 6 to 10 times what it was. It’s the same for orphans, rubble, fatalities, restaveks, rapes, IDPs.... you name it. It’s not that Haiti is not poor and that people don’t need help. It’s that they are not experiencing most NGOs tell us. And part of the reason that NGOs are getting it wrong is because they aren’t adapted to helping Haitians address poverty so much as they are adapted to getting donations to meet their own payrolls and expenses. And so you get the inflation and exaggeration and yes, some outright lies. And so that’s what the books about. I try to show just how far things have gotten out of hand.
The punchline is that most people working in the system know that something is seriously wrong.But no one wants to hear the real numbers. And if you try to give them the real numbers then you get what I got: bounced out of the system, no work, scorned, loathed, ostracized.
Maybe I’m overstating the reaction. I’ve gotten some flattering encouragement from some quarters. But it has also made me increasingly an object of concern and suspicion from those in official positions and in the NGOs. USAID Haiti refuses to approve any employment for me, an order that according to the agency that hires consultants for USAID came directly from the State Department in Washington. This is the kiss of death for a consultant in Haiti. In the past year I’ve been hired or been in the process of signing a contract on four occasions but was then refused, ostensibly because USAID refused to sighn off. There’s other issues as well. My email has been hacked repeatedly. I’ve even had important messages deleted. Important phone calls mysteriously cut off or unable to connect at critical moments. In print I’ve been called a “vampire,” “a criminal”, “vehemently opposed to aid.”
At times I feel like I’m living in an emperor- has- no- clothes fable. The NGOs and the UN and USG and GOH and the EU, all these very important institutions, the most important on earth, they are mass producing misinformation about Haiti. And if you criticize them, you reveal the untruths, they attack you like a germ.
I’m sure it’s going to get much worse, but I have absolutely no doubt that I’m on the right track. I think I have something important to say now. Something similar to Travesty but much more profound. I have a lot of data and I’ve tracked the contradictions. We shouldn’t be second guessing the truth and aid’s gotta be made effective. That’s the message. And I really believe that when I get this book done and if people read it, it’s going to have a powerful impact.
So that’s the theme: Why the radical exaggeration? Why does no one care about the truth? I weave Haitian history in and a description of class structure and adaptation within Haiti, including anecdotes and vignettes to tell the story.