Development Debacles: Book Review of “Travesty in Haiti”

  • Posted on: 26 January 2013
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

nTravesty in Haiti: A True Account of Christian Missions, Orphanages, Fraud, Food Aid and Drug Trafficking” is not a new book, having been published in 2008.  However, it should be required reading for volunteers, missionaries and development workers interested in Haiti.  Drawing from his experiences as an anthropologist and consultant in the northwest, he describes how NGOs in the region caused serious harm in the name of development.  Schwartz is frustrated but not anti development – he is against dependency, corruption, and  disempowering the people we say we want to help.  You can read a preview and/or purchase his book on Amazon.  A few thoughts below.


What is development?  Ask ten people and you are likely to receive ten different answers.  Schwartz argues that all would likely respond similarly “if not encumbered by the reality of bureaucracy, politics, and rules that impede the flow and application of aid”.  Surely, creating jobs, infrastructure, and institutions are central to whatever we believe development to be.  How to do so is where opinions start to vary.  The missionary may see the promotion his/her religion as central to progress, the development professional his/her models, the volunteer his/her initiatives, donors their strategic interests, the business-person his/her commodities or services.  As Haitians say, what you do is what you see.  But, as Haitians also say – what you see, that’s not what it is.  Calling something development does not make it so.  


Too often, development is about us.  About what we think other people need or how we want to feel ourselves.  About the well-intentioned volunteer who needs to show he or she can make a difference, the NGO as concerned with the bottom line as impact, the agency under pressure to implement programs that benefit the donor country.  What countries like Haiti need is not charity but solidarity and lasting partnerships.  There are development successes in Haiti – mostly programs that are accountable, work in partnership with Haitians, and cultivate their leadership.  All that having been said, the longer I’ve been involved with Haiti,  the more I am convinced that Haiti needs trade more than aid.  Trade creates jobs that last beyond a program cycle, and helps cultivate the managers that Haiti desperately needs to counter decades of brain drain  Digicel has done more to "develop" Haiti than a hundred NGOs.  


Schwartz’s first consultancy was with CARE, an NGO that long had a strong, but now much diminished, presence in the northwest.   He discovers that the food assistance program is hugely inefficient and lacks accountability.  Not only did those who needed it rarely receive the food, but much of it was sold on the open market.  When communities really did need food assistance, usually because of drought, food aid was slow in coming.  Perversely, when harvests were good, there was often a flood of food assistance, depressing local agriculture and justifying more food aid.  It quickly becomes clear to Schwartz that CARE was not concerned with impact but with selling agricultural surplus made available through USAID in order to finance their operations in Haiti and elsewhere.  Benefiting the Haitians who needed the food aid was secondary.  The blame includes but goes beyond NGOs – their activities reflect the priority that the United States and other countries have traditionally placed on finding markets for agricultural surplus. 


Consider food assistance in the broader agricultural context.   Schwartz describes the impact of Haiti being leveraged into dropping tarrifs on imported rice.  While this did give Haitians access to cheaper rice it also hobbled national rice production.   Apart from the loss of agricultural livelihoods, there have been other consequences.  When the cost of imported rice spikes, so does vulnerability.  Donors have slowly become more receptive to the World Food Program and NGOs buying food commodities locally and regionally.  USAID’s  signature food security initiative (Feed the Future) emphasizes helping countries to develop their own agricultural sectors.  Haiti is included in this initiative.  Despite this, most U.S. assistance is still provided through surplus agricultural commodities.  The public also needs information about the causes of food insecurity. If you follow’s Haiti listserv, you’ll often read about some group in the United States trying to send food to Haiti.  That's not how to promote food security in Haiti.  The best way to assist is to give give cash during emergencies, promote agriculture/environmental management programs, and to buy Haitian agricultural products whenever you can find them.


Schwartz is later asked to examine the orphanages in his region to see if they would benefit from food assistance.  Orphanages in Haiti tend to get a lot of attention.  If an American politician supports a project in Haiti, it is usually an orphanage.  There are two major problems with orphanages in Haiti.  First, many are horribly corrupt.  Second, many of the children within them have parents.  Orphanages in Haiti are not unlike pawn-shops.  When times are hard, parents with many children may put one of them in an orphanage until their financial situation improves.  The living conditions of the children may well be better than at home.  I once visited an orphanage when a mother came to claim her two sons.  The children did not want to return with her as they ate better and were able to attend school.  To be sure, there are true orphans in Haiti without a social support network, and there are some good orphanages out there.  I think the bottom line is that the best way to prevent orphans in Haiti is to ensure women have consistent access to family planning information and commodities so they can have only as many children as they want and can care for.


In the Northwest and most other parts of Haiti, agriculture was traditionally the only game in town when it came to livelihoods.  That is, until Haiti became a trans-shipment point for cocaine.  Schwartz makes a good argument that the drug trade in Haiti took off during the embargo as the military junta benefited from drug trafficking and entrepreneurs became smugglers.  Even today, the northwest is still a narco-region.  Everyone has friends or family members involved – one quickly learns not to ask too many questions.  When the police try to pull him into it, he decides that it is time to return to the United States.


He concludes that Haiti is unlikely to change and that outsiders are unlikely to help so long as they use development as an excuse for achieving personal and political objectives.  There are so many examples of Haiti being harmed by the organizations that have a mandate to help. The financing of the Pelligre Dam by the World Bank is a textbook example of a development organization causing displacement and human suffering in the name of progress – but progress for who?  Certainly not for those who lost their land and livelihoods.  The culling of Haiti’s Kreyol Pig population by USAID was undertaken, no matter the reasons that may have given, out of fear that swine flu might spread to the United States.  To imagine what this was like, picture a development agency from another country taking your ATM card, draining your bank account, and never reimbursing you.  Read more in Paul Farmer’s Book “Uses of Haiti” or “Lords of Poverty.”


In an annex, he makes sensible recommendations for responsible development. These include integrating relief with local production, reinforcing production with secured loans, improving access to foreign markets, stimulating markets with local purchases, reinforcing the industries that do work, and using rigorous accounting, monitoring, and evaluation to prevent embezzlement and favoritism.  As Schwartz boards his plane to Miami, I wished that he visited other regions to observe organizations that are putting some of those recommendations into practice -  food assistance programs that work, orphanages that are run well, missionaries who behave ethically, etc.  This would have added some balance to the book - development programming in Haiti has been decidedly mixed, but is not entirely negative.  Still, if we are to become better partners, we have to be honest about what has not worked so far and to learn from our mistakes.  Take a look at the Travesty In Haiti website, and if you want to purchase it, you can do son on Amazon.


On a side note, Schwartz was responsible for conducting a shelter-related evaluation for USAID in post-earthquake Port au Prince.  Remember the Haitian government’s estimate that over 300,000 or more people had died in the earthquake?  That was pulled out of thin air – but in the absence of solid research, it stuck.  Schwartz found that the actual death toll was likely much lower – around 65,000.  The methodology wasn’t perfect, and never could be given the challenges of post-earthquake Haiti, but it is probably safe to say that his estimate is closer to reality than the Haitian government’s.   



By Marty Duren
Kingdom in the Midst

Last week I published a review of Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking by Dr. Timothy T. Schwartz. (Read that review here.) The book was so eye-opening that I immediately started trying to track down the author for an interview. Although Dr. Schwartz has been virtually 100% successful in remaining off the Internet grid, with the help of Dr. Robert Lawless at Wichita State University, contact was made and Dr. Schwartz agreed to this email interview. Over the course of the next several days my interview with Dr. Schwartz will be published on Following this series I hope to further explore the international aid situation, with an emphasis on how it applies to Haiti, though other global examples will be examined. My hope is that this teeming mass of Americans who have become concerned about the plight of Haiti will educate themselves about why and how Haiti was devastated well before the January 12 earthquake and what might be done to render true assistance in the aftermath.
MD: Did any changes take place in food aid after your book came out?
Schwartz: Well, no. Except that Meghann Curtis, who works for Hilary Clinton and Cheryl Mills, wrote me and said the State Department was rewriting U.S. policy with hopes it would not resemble the American Plan that was described in Travesty. So in that sense it had an impact. Not because it caused them to change the policy, but it apparently helped them understand the problems they face. The book is just now catching on, but I am no longer among a small minority objecting to food aid. Since I wrote Travesty a growing number of agencies, even NGOs who were involved in food distribution, have come out against it. Oxfam is currently leading the charge.
I think this is great but I don’t want to give them too much credit because everyone–that is everyone who is thinking and in the field–has always known that food aid damages the agricultural markets in underdeveloped countries. I mean it is an incredible paradox that agronomists whose first lesson in agro-industrialism was about buying up surpluses were part of dumping food on the agricultural economies they were supposed to be building. They aren’t stupid. They knew. Everyone was always outraged. But quietly. As I detail in Travesty, CARE consultants and even the heads of the food programs were at times outspoken about their opposition to the food. There were heated arguments. Seminars. But the bottom line was that the people on the ground are not making the decisions. For CARE, it is the headquarters in Atlanta that makes the decisions and their decision was to take the equivalent of 15 million US aid dollars–in food–and do what USAID told them to do. And it should be clear that it is not USAID who is making the decision either. They are taking their orders from congress. And congress is taking its orders from special interests.
As for CARE, to their credit, the conscience of someone inside must have won out, or at least caused them to stumble. In 2007, USAID was negotiating a new contract with them. I recently learned the details because a new friend was involved on behalf of USAID. The contract was for five years of distributing food aid. CARE had been trying to get away for food aid for over a decade and obviously they were increasingly nervous about it. This is the era when Oxfam and other groups were making a lot of noise. There were/are pages on the Internet dedicated to opposing food aid as well as protests in Geneva. But, as my friend says, “they had a dilemma because food aid was a cash cow for CARE.” So this time, in 2007, they tried to compromise. CARE said they would sign a contract for 2 years, but USAID likes five year contracts. The food aid delivery is a bidding process, and so USAID folks whispered to the ears of those at the World Food Program, which put in a “competitive bid,”–I use the quotes because there are only a handful of NGOs who are allowed to bid on USAID projects–and CARE was/is out the food distribution process in Haiti .
MD: Other books have been written chronicling aid problems in places like Somalia. Is the failure of international aid endemic?
Schwartz: Yes, I think so. Although I only have firsthand experience in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I once had a professor, Robert Lawless, who was a really profound thinker; he would recount the calamities of aid throughout the world telling us about these massive projects that backfired. He was a big fan of indigenous knowledge and really respected people. In the years I was working in Haiti I somehow forgot much of that. But since writing the book and corresponding with Lawless again–after I came out of the field–I realized that he had already prepared me for what I found. Also, I have heard similar stories from people who have worked for NGOs in Africa and other areas of Latin America. And, I read Michael Marner’s The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. I read it after I published Travesty and I was glad; the similarities were so great that it would have made me feel like I copied him. He wrote a terrific book and the portrait he painted of aid in Somalia is chilling, but I am not surprised. When I read the book I felt like I was right there with him, like I had already seen it. And I had. It was the same neglect, waste, economic disruption, self-deception, rationalization, and greed as we see in Haiti, but with even more cataclysmic consequences.
MD: In your experience, what has been the single most frustrating thing about US policy toward Haiti?
Schwartz: It is not about developing Haiti. It is about developing US business interests; which is fine. Haitians don’t vote for US politicians. But the problem–and this is the point that I hope I make most forcefully in the book–concerns the organizations that claim they are working for the poorest of poor; it’s simply not true. They are working for the US, French, German, and Canadian special interests. And they all know this. These organizations are staffed by an almost uniformly good bunch of people. People who set out to help, who wanted to change the world, alleviate poverty, but they got caught up in the industry of aid and those dreams get swept away and replaced by hope for a salary raise, a pension plan, a promotion, better working conditions. This is where the biggest frustration comes in for me. Back in the US there is a whole different set of good people who are sending in donations and voting for these organizations, cheering them on. They are doing this because they think the money is going to help the poor and hungry and illiterate overseas. They aren’t donating money so that it can pay some other American or German a middle to upper class salary and pension plan or so the director of CARE can send his children to a $25,000 per year private school. They are giving that money to help the poor in other countries…and it just ain’t happening. These other good people, the NGO employees who are the recipients of most the aid, seem powerless to change things and then, as time and their careers progress, less and less disposed to try to change it.
Yeah, that’s frustrating. But US policy, ideally, should focus on helping other countries develop. I can understand why it doesn’t since politics is politics and corporate interests tend to be first. My beef is with the civil/NGO sector. They are the ones we finance to defend and help the poor. They need to be held accountable. They need to do what they say they are going to do. Read Part 2 of this interview.

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