Development Debacles: Book Review of “Travesty in Haiti”
Travesty 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 Topix.com’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.