HOW HAITIAN AID WORKS
In the first episode, I interview Timothy Schwartz. Timothy holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Florida, has over 30 years of experience consulting for some of the largest NGOs in Haiti including UNICEF and CARE International, and he is the author of ‘Travesty in Haiti’ and most recently ‘The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle.’
In this episode we explore the complexities of aid delivery in Haiti. Tim details how not only are aid organisations often ineffective, but they also often over-exaggerate the needs of the beneficiaries to increase their funding. He claims that this results in a system where the true needs of the beneficiaries are not met. Tim advocates for a system of NGO accountability and intervention transparency. A full transcript of his interview can be found below.
Tim Schwartz’s Interview:
Hello, and welcome to the first week of Development United. A weekly podcast dedicated to bringing together the key actors in Haitian aid delivery. We interview leaders of progressive NGO interventions, the beneficiaries of these interventions, and academics with relevant insights into how aid can be delivered most effectively.
By bringing these actors together, we hope to stimulate unprecedented communication. We want our listeners to be able to challenge and reconstruct the ways in which they donate, the ways in which they deliver their own aid interventions, and the ways in which they understand the complexities of aid delivery.
To start off the show, we will be launching into a brief overview of how aid is delivered in Haiti, and the complexities of this process. To lead us through this discussion, I’d like to welcome Timothy Schwartz. Timothy holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Florida, has over 30 years of experience consulting for some of the largest NGOs in Haiti including UNICEF and CARE International, and he is the author of ‘Travesty in Haiti’ and most recently ‘The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle.’ Thanks for coming on Tim!
To start off the show, why don’t we talk a bit about your most recent book, “The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle.” It seems that when most people donate to charitable causes, they assume their money will be going to the people that need it the most, and that it will be spent in the most efficient way possible. However, you argue in your book that this is not always the case, and that often donors can be misled to believe that funding is necessary when it is truly not, and that their funds are being used to benefit the most needy when when in fact there is no need at all.
So to start unravelling this confusing situation about how aid actually works, could you explain how donors are able to be misled in the first place.
Ok. But first, despite being accused as against aid and charity, I’m not and never have said that those seeking to help the poor do not need money. To help the poor takes money. Lots of it. The issue is that much of the money that is currently being given doesn’t get spent on the poor. On the contrary, it mostly gets spent on NGO administrative salaries, perks, offices, and vehicles. Despite the commonly heard claim of “90 percent of all our money goes directly to the poor” the truth is that 90 percent of all humanitarian aid organizations are spending 90 percent of all the money they get on admin and logistics. That’s money we can say is ‘legally stolen’. What I mean is that it’s money that is accounted for in the books, it gets spent according to the letter of the law, even if those laws might be unjust and favour those collecting the money. I’ve written about this elsewhere and anyone who cares to learn more about it can find articles and critiques similar to what I’m saying here. What has most concerned me is what happens to that 10 percent that makes it past the administration of aid agencies. That’s where the real crimes occur. Crimes of negligence, in the sense that the aid agencies have almost no follow up and no accountability mechanisms, and outright crimes of embezzlement as people in poor countries quickly learn that aid can be pilfered with impunity.
But now, more recently, what I’ve become most interested in is the disjunction between the problems the humanitarian aid agencies say exist and what those problems really are. And it’s here that the media comes in. First of all, the humanitarian aid agencies have evolved strategies of sensationalism to get money. I’m talking about slave children, epidemic rape, 100’s of millions of orphans. They take issues that shock us, they tell us horrible anecdotes about people suffering, they slant and exaggerate the statistics in the most extreme ways, they tell us they’re helping resolve those problems, and then they ask the us to give them money. And it works. I was reading the other day that more people in the US donate to charity than vote. And I personally see the reaction to those donor campaigns all the time. I meet people all the time who say, “oh you work in Haiti, I want to do something for those people,” and then they talk about the poor orphans and slave children, and they ask me who to send money to. I can never answer that question. I want to. I wish I could. But after 25 years in Haiti I am almost completing stumped. I’m not saying there is no one doing good work. I just don’t know how you get past the administrations so that 90% of your money doesn’t get skimmed. I’ll get back to that before we finish because I know there are other questions about how to give. But the problems that most concern me, as a researcher, is that, first of all, putting aside healthcare, 98% of all the aid organizations I know are not addressing the problems. And secondly, most of the problems they’re telling world about do not exist, at least not as they’re presenting them.
What’s going on isn’t really a mystery. The reason the system has gone awry is that a) the profit is in getting donations, not addressing problems, b) to get the donations they have to make the problem sound as bad as possible. This is the crux of it for me these days. Those lies short circuit the whole aid effort. Those who attempt to be honest when collecting donations, who refuse to exaggerate, they don’t get anything. For example, after the Haiti earthquake a grassroots organization began claiming horrendous levels of rape in the camps. They called it a rape epidemic and were cranking out shocking stories of women and children who had been raped. The press was all over them. AP, Huffington Post, the Mail, you name it. CNN made one of the directors a CNN Hero and gave her $50,000. Every organization from USAID to CARE International was giving them money. Michael Moore, Martha Stuart and Hillary Clinton repeated their claims and gave them aid. Those organizations and people were getting something out of it too. They were using the claims of epidemic levels of rape to collect money for their own organization. They were saying, ‘see, we’re helping address this terrible rape crisis in Haiti.’ Meanwhile, Haiti’s main feminist organizations were getting less donations than before the earthquake. And why? Because they couldn’t corroborate the claims of epidemic rape. What I’m saying here is they wouldn’t lie and say all these women were being raped and so the money was going to the other organization, the one that was, for the most part, making it all up. And so in the end what did the reputable organizations that wanted to be honest do? They began to make the same claims. Even though they knew there was no rape epidemic they began to say on their websites that they too were addressing the rape epidemic. So they lent credibility to this massive lie. They had to. It was that or cease to exist because without money, you can’t function. So it becomes a type of arms race, a race of lies. And the press, ah, they love it. They get to write about these fantastic shock stories that increase readership and make a journalists career. There were many journalist awards won repeating the les about rape in Haiti. And it’s not just rape: child slaves, starvation, crime, you name it, they distort it and blow it out of proportion. And think about that for a moment. If the problem didn’t really exist, or if it was radically different or minor compared to what you collected 10 million dollars for, imagine what happens next. There’s nothing to address. Or you go out teaching people how to deal with a problem they don’t have. Or, if you’re really corrupt, as at least some organizations are, then you just say you solved the problem.
Something that could offset all this lying is some kind of accountability mechanism. A fact checker. But that doesn’t exist in Haiti. And everyone, at every level, winds up finding that the lies are to their advantage. It becomes a type of mass conspiracy of self-interest. Another good example is the death count. Right after the earthquake the first question everyone had was, ‘how many people are dead.’ And of course they did. How many people died is the very best measure of the proportions of the disaster. The Red Cross and UN, they were on that. They started issuing estimates and promising a precise evaluation. Meanwhile, the money started flowing in. The Haitian government and all the big aid agencies realized that the bigger the disaster the more money people sent. I’m not saying they were evil for doing that. They were doing what aid workers and governments do, frantically trying to get all the resources they could to address a crisis. In that sense, you might say that they had a type of duty to make the crisis seem as big as possible. At a certain point they seemed to be competed with the 2004 Asian tsunami, they running the numbers up, trying to make it the worst disaster in history. And it was working. From the US to the Netherlands to German to Ghana, telethons were being held around the world. Even the Democratic Republic of Congo sent money, and they have the lowest per capita income in the world. The press caught on almost immediately. But getting back to press and the fact that the figures were being inflated, it’s the job of the press to keep everyone honest. It’s one of those neat features of modern civilization. Without the press people can lie all the time. Politicians, religious leaders and aid agencies can say whatever the hell they want. And at first the press was doing a good job. The AP, Miami Herald and Radio Netherlands all nailed them for not counting and for radically inflating the numbers. But then, suddenly they stopped writing about the numbers. They quit exposing the lies. I was actually inside of that. USA Today and the Associated Press both approached me, as a researcher and statistical methodologist, and began negotiating to have me estimate the number dead. USAID approached my professor, Russ Bernard. Russ is famous for having estimated the 1985 Mexico City earthquake death toll. But then suddenly no one wanted to know. Meanwhile, the government ran the death toll up to 316,000. Most organizations, such as the UN, USAID, and most press outlets settled on 230,000. They simply found the 316,000 too absurd. But even 230,000 is absurd. Yet, in the end, 316,000 became official and today, if you google “worst disaster”, you’ll find sites like the Wall Street Journal citing “Haiti Earthquake, worst disaster of 21st century, 316,000 dead.” But yet, there is absolutely no reason to believe that more than 80,000 people were killed. All serious and credible studies suggest less than 80,000. And really, it’s probably more like 40,000 to 50,000. All the data from aid agency employees, embassy data on expats, big businesses, the Haitian police, UN personnel, they all indicate that about 1% to 1.5% of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area were killed. And I did a study that I talk about in the book. It was a survey for USAID, we estimated 66,000 killed. That was high too. We used techniques that assured we would over estimate. And, by the way, as you know, that study got leaked to press, it went viral. Every major media outlet on the planet wrote about it. All with my name in it. I was blasted on many internets sites as some kind of evil person, one called me a “vampire” others accused me of being CIA. All because of a study that statistically estimates the number killed. Even USAID, which has commissioned the study and published it—you can find it online, just google USAID and BARR study—they blacklisted me. For 6 years now I have not been allowed to work for the US government. That wasn’t official, but that’s how USAID and the State Department work. They have these little lists for consultants they consider dangerously truthful.
So getting to the conspiracy part, it was in everyone’s interest for the numbers to be high. It was in the interest of the aid agencies collecting money, the government, the poor…. Journalists love the high numbers. It makes for great press articles, beginning “The worst disaster in 100 years, 316,000 dead….” Even organizations such as the UN, World Bank and USAID have a vested interest in the numbers being as high as possible. And the reason those institutions want high numbers is, I argue in the book, because they had large numbers of people killed in hotels where they housed their consultants and visiting staff. USAID had its cultural attaché in a house that completely disintegrated, maiming her and her husband. But really, it was only two hotels and a relatively few wealthy houses that collapsed. Both of the hotels were unsafe and there is good reason to believe that the institutions knew they were unsafe. If not, they should have known. The house where the cultural attaché lived was clearly a death trap. But the high numbers means they’re not really to blame. If 70% of the buildings in Port-au-Prince collapsed—which is what the institutional experts were claiming after the earthquake—than no one is to blame. But really, only 7% of buildings collapsed. And the well-built structures that were anchored to bedrock, as they should be, did not collapse. Indeed, it wasn’t really that much of an earthquake, not compared to what hit Chile several months later and nothing compared to what hit Japan. It was, as so many people came to recognize, a ‘crisis of construction’—i.e. negligence.
DU: As interventions are being implemented that are often unnecessary, what do the beneficiaries do in response?
For Haitians aid is simply not something they take seriously. Even the very well off think of it. They call it “piyay”, which means something for them to simply take. Haitians have a saying, they say, “The person who gives is stupid, and the person who doesn’t take it is an idiot.” And that really sums it up. They simply don’t believe in aid. And if you talk to most Haitians about it you’ll find they think that the aid agencies are getting rich off of what they do. Ironically, they’re right in many ways. In some cases, they think we’re simply getting a lot more money than we give. And in fact, many Haitians have gotten in the business with orphanages and giving food away. And they have gotten rich. But they also have different understandings. They think things like it’s all a smoke screen, that we’re smuggling uranium out of the country or gold. Also, for the Haitians, there is generally not a great deal of sympathy for the poor. After all, some 70% of the country is, by international standards, extremely poor. They see the poverty all the time. And while even the very rich can wax eloquently about the misery, there are widespread beliefs that the worse off people are somehow responsible for their situation. And there is also the fact that with so many people in need--everyone has brothers, sisters, children, nieces or nephews—that why pass it on to others, take it and help your’ own people. And there, in what I’m saying here, is also a kind of irony with aid. If you allow the poor kid on the block to get aid, that aid is likely to be significant enough that the kid is better off than your own children. There’s an injustice in that. Imagine yourself, growing up in suburban US, you’re middle class, you go to a good school. There’s a family down the street, they’re poor, you want to help…. But then their kid gets a “poor person scholarship” to go to Harvard. You’re smarter, you work harder, you got better grades, but suddenly this kid is put higher than you. Some people might say that’s ok. But really, for most people it’s not. And what I’m saying, I see it even with myself. I see Haitian kids getting scooped up by foreigners and taken to the US, getting high school graduation paid, a car, free ride to a major university. Hey wait, I had to pay for my own education. I had to work my ass off. And then to see that aid recipient not give a damn about anyone left in Haiti. Yeah, there’s a type of injustice in successfully targeted aid. It’s not usually based on merit. And that injustice makes others resent it, indeed, resist it. And it encourages them to commandeer it. And what I just described isn’t some rare case. That’s what you see with the well-run orphanages. Almost across the board: kid that gets into a well-run foreign sponsored orphanage, meets a lot of foreigners who want to help her, learns English, gets a much better education than the kids she left behind and then gets a visa and University scholarship. Meanwhile, the lower middle class kid is left in the dirt. So what happens, middle class parents or any parent in a position to do so, uses their connections to get those “orphan” positions for their own kids, whether they really need it or not. It’s a privilege, an opportunity. And that’s one way that aid perverts or distorts. I’ve seen that within families. In fact, let me interject this anecdote.
One of the first things I did in when I came to Haiti in 1990 was help this little girl with a congenitally twisted foot. She was a twin. One of two beautiful 8 year old girls. The one with no twisted foot was in a clean dress, ribbons in her well-groomed hair. The one with the twisted foot, dirty, matted hair, neglected. I can still remember watching the two play in the middle of the village. The crippled one playing by herself, a couple little flowers in her hand, she's staring at them, pulling out the peddles. Meanwhile, the whole child was one running with the other children, laughing. It was heart wrenching.
I knew them because of their brother. A 10 year old boy who latched on to me and although I tried to ditch him, made himself so useful I finally accepted his total presence and attempt to monopolize me. And yes, already a seasoned aid entrepreneur. Their family was desperately poor, lived in a waddle and dab, thatch roofed house. He'd learned English from the missionaries, already at 10 years of age was an absolute scammer. Today he is a very successful preacher/aid gatekeeper.
So this crippled girl, his little sister. In the states, even if she was my own kid, I might not have been able to do anything. But in Haiti there just happened to be a team of health care workers, missionaries, who were visiting the village. Mind you this is my first trip to Haiti. First week in the rural areas. So I go to the other ‘blan’, and I’m telling this woman about the girl. Just so happens her husband is an orthopaedic surgeon, a Shriner no less. Imagine that. I had just made a perfect connection. This woman was looking to save such children. Great copy for the Shriners and their Children’s' Hospital and aid to crippled children. So a process began.
It took about two years. But they got the kid a visa, got her to the states, got her an operation. And of course, they're not going to do all that for a kid to come back to Haiti and become a market woman. They subsidize the kid and the family. Sent her to school.
Anyway, I left that summer, 1990, two years before she even had the operation, and I did not see the child again until she was 16 years old. So fast forward 8 years.
I was living in a neighbouring village. Doing a survey. I hired her mafia soon to be preacher brother. He had heard I was there, tracked me down. Had to give him a job, right. Fired him after we caught him stealing. But anyway, before all that, I made a special trip at the behest of the brother, to see the girl. I get there, and before I even arrive at their nice new cement home, I can hear her, she's barking some order to her mother. Then I see her. She's stretched on the porch, book in hand. Beautiful clean dress, ribbons in her groomed hair. She must have weighed 200 plus pounds. Big, overweight, spoiled princess, with a shitty attitude. She couldn't have cared less about seeing me. And then, while I'm standing there talking to her, here comes the sister, with a 5-gallon bucket of water on her head, she's in a dirty dress, hair matted... She's not in school, can't read. The water she's fetched so her princess sister can bathe. Kind of twisted, eh?
So anyway, getting back to the issue here, as for who gets the aid in general, such as who gets the food, or the clothes, I just told you, there is a sort of catch as catch can mentality. And there is little respect for whether someone “needs” it. And making all this worse, most foreigners do not have a clue which Haitian is in need. To most foreigners they all look poor. I wrote in another book about how sponsors for children at a school run by US missionaries were quite often poorer than the parents of the children they sponsored, much poorer. Don’t misunderstand me here. They were not poorer because Haiti is really full of rich people. They were poorer because the elite in the city where the missionaries had the school had totally dominated access to the school. It was a good school, better than the local catholic school that the elite traditionally attended. It was English speaking, and most the elite by that time had second and third homes in the US. It also had AC and video projectors in every room. All US teachers, highly qualified. And it was basically free, something like $5 per months at the time. And so the elite, through their influence over the missionaries—as in access gasoline, help getting shipments through customs, help building—had managed to completely dominate access to the school. One family had 6 children in the school, all on full sponsorship. Those particular parents were high elite. I mean vacations in Switzerland and Paris. Yet their kid’s educations were being paid by middle class US single mother and some plumber and his family. They were buying them Christmas presents! Funny thing too is that once some of the sponsors for those very children I just mentioned visited, met the parents, rode around in onetheir vehicles, visited one oftheir banana plantations, and it never occurred to them that the people were actually rich. They were so overwhelmed by the poverty all around them that they just assumed those people were poor too. I could go on with those stories. But the point is that the foreigners giving don’t know, the Haitians don’t care, or rather they don’t see anything wrong with scooping aid meant to the poorest, and the missionaries or foreigners who live in Haiti and know better, most of them get caught up in the system, they buy their place in society by distributing aid. Some of them also just got bamboozled for decades. And some learn and actually get aid to the poor, they’re the minority.
DU: You say that one of the main things that is creating this type of delivery in Haitian aid is the absence of a feedback loop between donors and beneficiaries, what does that mean?
There currently is no mechanism in Haiti to make aid agencies and charities accountable. The government has none, USAID has none, the EU has none, and the UN has none. There are organizations that are supposed to get everyone together and make them show and tell and plan. You can read about those failures on my blog. They don’t do it. In fact, they’re just like 95% of the rest of the agencies: they collect money to do good and then spend most that money on their staff and salaries and useless meetings.
It’s important to understand that the big donors—governments—they’re not stupid. They demand evaluations. Those organizations that get government money are supposed to do evaluations and produce reports. They get money from governments and the UN to do that. Every grant comes with an allotment of to evaluate. But the catch here is they get to do it. IR at least, they get to hire the people who do it. And so they hire some consultant, like me, to evaluate their project. When the consultant turns in the report they make corrections and hand it back until they like what’s in the report. I’m not kidding. I recently did a supervision job for IFAD at the UN. They had given $26 million to what is actually Haitian government owned enterprise that functions just like and NGO. I was part of a team of 6 high level and very experienced consultants. We were appalled at what we found. The organization had clearly embezzled most of the money, the work they did do was shoddy, and they wouldn’t give us information we asked for. Yet, after we wrote the report, they got to read it and then we had these negotiations where we had to sit down with them and they told us all the language they didn’t like. Really. They would object to certain words, phrases, tones…. And in the end we had to change it. When we complained to the head of the team—who had been sent from IFAD headquarters in Rome—he said, ‘you have to be positive.” Wow.
And it’s the same with NGOS. If the consultant won’t play ball they sometimes don’t get paid. And even if they do, if the organization doesn’t like what’s in the report then it’s an “internal report” meaning no one else gets to see it. I’ve written a lot of those. If you want to read a report I’ve written you’re not likely to get it from the agency that hired me. I’ve seen all the different versions of this type of undermining evaluations. CARE International’s top consultant and one of their directors once reviewed a report I wrote, agreed the project was a miserable failure, and then they jotted down on paper exactly the lies I was supposed to tell in the modified version of the report. The women then quite literally slid the notes across the table and said, “Now you go home and think about it.” Incredible. In that particular case I did exactly what she said. I wrote a report the first half of which was the lies they wanted me to tell. But I wrote a second half was all about why the claims in the first half were untrue. They were not happy. That was an “internal report.” In that case I got paid. I suspect they took my name off the document and doctored it. They had to have the report. They had passed deadline, it was for a big Northern European Donor. They’d gotten millions and they’d basically blown it.
In another case, I did a job for UNICEF when they didn’t pay us at all. It was almost pro-bono. I signed a contract for $38,000 to do about $150,000 worth of work. The reason UNICEF was so cheap was because another organization had already blown half the money and so they recruited us. And we were hungry at the time. We were building our reputation. I put about 20 Haitians on it. Two PhDs from the US and me. Despite the money, it was a big and important job. We were to visit 10% of all the 723 orphanage in Haiti, develop profiles of infrastructure, interview staff and kids. It was going to make us famous. So everyone is working on a kind of pay for performance. We covered their per diems but no one would get anything until the job was over and UNICEF paid us. And even then, it wasn’t going to be much. But when we came in with the report the UNICEF supervisor was furious. We found that 80% of children in orphanages said they would rather stay right the in the orphanage rather than return to their families. UNICEF is pro-family reunification and here we had children telling us they didn’t want to go home. So UNICEF supervisor said we had to do X more amount of work or we wouldn’t get paid. It was a run around. I was going to have to find $5,000 to pay per diems again and UNICEF might-might—pay us the money the owed. We refused. We said pay us what you owe and we’ll be glad to do the work, pro-bono. For us, that was a kind of test of the woman’s sincerity. She didn’t go for it. So we simply stood on the contract and terms of reference and in the end I ate it. We never got paid. We do own a nice report though if anyone wants to read about Haitian orphanages.
So anyway, returning to the issue of accountability mechanism. What is sorely needed is some type of website where all the reports are made available to the public. Where experts can review and rate them. Where all the data bases from surveys should be made available and with some venue for people to rate them as well. Transparency, all the data should be where people can get to it and review it. If the government donors are not going to take the evaluations away from the aid agencies and have truly independent evaluations, then they should at least force them to make the evaluations public. And they should put an end to the “internal report” loop hole. Those reports should be public, the consultant’s names on the reports, contact information. Transparency. And what I’m describing here would create a forum of a sort of single development mind, a place where all the organizations would have to go public, open-up for critique, respond to that critique, be vetted. We could all share our knowledge, experience and insights. Sure, there would be tension and arguments, but we would get a massive synergy out of it. And so simple. Just a website. Why doesn’t it already exist!
A next step would be to actually do independent evaluations. They don’t have to be elaborate. Just publish the income data as Charity Navigator does, but in this case income and expenditures in-country. And have some team of evaluators who go out and verify if projects do in fact exist, if they’ve done what the agencies claim they are doing. They could also do very simple little surveys of beneficiaries and key leaders in the community where the project was operant. I’m talking very simple, something like 10 random beneficiaries and opinions from 5 power brokers, e.g. mayor, priest, pastor, women’s organization leader, farming cooperative leader. Just get some feedback. As it is, there is no mechanism like what I’m describing. The organization representatives can—and do-- say anything they like. There is zero verification.
DU: What barriers do you see that stand in the way of implementing the donor-beneficiary feedback loop?
As for barriers. None of the organizations are going to willing participate what I just described. But it can be forced on them. First off, aid workers will give the reports. Even if the agencies don’t want to. Most aid workers are so fed up with the lies and waste that they would contribute—anonymously of course-- to making the system transparent. But once something like what I’m describing was in place, it’s not hard to imagine getting USAID or the UN leadership or EU to pass some kind of mandate that any organization they fund must make reports and data bases available to the public via this site. The aid organizations are going to hate it and they’re not going to give the reports up easily, but if the donors mandate it they’ll go along. In fact, some will make a big deal of cooperating, or at least appearing they do. And the reasons the donors would pass such a mandate is because they too are sick and tired of the total ineffectiveness. In fact, USAID has recently passed such a law, it just hasn’t had an effect yet. People want aid to work. Even those who participate in the lies and cover-ups, most genuinely want the system to improve and to be more effective. The problem is that the playing field isn’t level. CARE International doesn’t want to be honest if CRS can go right on lying and covering up. It’s like the “lies race” I mentioned earlier. Until everyone has to conform to the same standards of integrity the honest NGO loses.
And by the way, talking about the “lie race” and competitive dishonesty, the same forces are operant at lower levels. Once the aid gets into the Haitian end of the system, meaning once it’s left the hands of the international NGO and has been sent to schools or farmer organizations, there’s also no accountability. And so the most corrupt Haitians’ win: they dominate the aid, they increase their power through that domination and pilfering the aid. They become richer. Meanwhile the honest Haitian aid worker gets little, remains or becomes weak and poor, and because he or she won’t tolerate others stealing the aid she’s a pariah. She doesn’t last long. She plays the game or gets pushed out. It can even be dangerous for her. The way the system is now, it selects for corruption. It’s ugly.
And the oddest thing about all that I’m saying is that even the Haitians, 99% of whom do or would themselves pilfer the aid—because there is no control—would applaud accountability. If you put in the controls that stopped people from stealing and fairly got aid to those who need it, you would hear arousing cheer go up from one side of the country to the other. The Haitians are more disgusted with the system than we are. But they know, if they don’t take the aid for them and theirs, the next person will.
DU: One of the things that you mention in your book is how “people are scared of the poor.” What people? Do you think this is one of the reason that the feedback loop is absent—because donors don’t want to invest the time to understand the issues of the poor and their complex solutions?
The people who are scared of the poor are mostly those who don’t know Haiti. They’re the people who have been informed by the press and the security experts. That’s the aid workers, embassy personnel, security workers themselves. Don’t get me wrong, there is crime in Haiti. And it’s getting worse. But statistically it’s lower than most US cities, much lower than the neighbouring Dominican Republic or Kingston Jamaica, or anywhere in central America. There’s also the notion, in the minds of most people from developed countries, that urban black neighbourhoods are dangerous. That’s something we get from the US. And in the US there is a lot of hostility toward whites and upper class in those neighbourhoods. Here in Haiti that exists to a certain extent with the poor and the Haitian elite. The poor have a lot of resentment against the elite and the elite are generally concerned about security. And they have reason to be. Again, it’s probably not as bad as the US. But when it comes to foreigners it’s a whole other issue. The Haitian poor have a type of love of foreigners. Most foreigners in Haiti are here to give stuff away, they’re missionaries and aid workers who have come to help the poor. And so you have this sort of reverse racist for foreigners in Haiti. Rescue workers after the earthquake had just arrived and they didn’t understand that. And many aid workers and embassy personnel never get far beyond the walls around their compounds, work places or the security at the restaurants they frequent. And so what they know about Haiti is what they read or what they learn in their security briefs. And that tends to be extreme. I mention in the book Arnaud Dandoy, a Belg criminologist who has written about the humanitarian aid communities “moral panic.” What he’s talking about is these extreme measures of security: High walls, canteen wire, armed security guards, curfews, and restrictions on entering certain neighbourhoods. Aid workers and other expats are also constantly bombarded with frightening security briefs. If you live in New York City, someone could get killed in the next building and there’s a good chance you’d never hear about it. Here in Port-au-Prince, if a foreigner or an elite gets killed on the other side of the country, every other foreigner is going to hear about it. That escalates the sense of insecurity and fear.
DU: Throughout your book you talk about lies from the media, NGO failures, and wasting money in the context of post-earthquake Haiti, how does it work today?
The aid agencies and the press still crank out the same lies and exaggerations. In that sense nothing has changed. But the one thing that might have changed is that there is a great deal of criticism regarding where all the money is going. The pressure is building there.
DU: How readily should the Haitian government be funded? Some say that funding the government leads to nowhere due to corruption, others say that funding NGOs leads to nowhere because they are a business in disguise. However, you are also quick to point out that if Haitian relief had been handed to the government their national budget would have been funded for the next 13 years. What do you recommend?
Yes, unfortunately and for whatever reason, the Haitian government is hopelessly corrupt. That’s a much deeper problem than the aid issue. I spent a lot time trying to answer that question when I was a student. For me the bottom line is that emigration has left Haiti with what we can call a systemic lobotomy. In developed countries, what responsible and successful people do is invest in their communities. Then they make damn sure those investments are safe, that the politicians provide services rather than pilfer. And they have a viable justice system to protect them, that allows them to safely protest or go after politicians, write articles and opinions and complain. Not so in Haiti.
Unless you’re one of the super-rich or a narco or thug, nothing is safe in Haiti, nothing is sure. And so those who are competent, as soon as they start getting ahead they begin investing their money, time, education and energy in getting the hell out of this place. And who can blame them. Meanwhile, the corrupt, the narcos, the thugs, killers, those that are making a fortune on pilfering the aid, they’re the ones who stay. And they thrive on poverty and chaos.
The irony of what I’m saying here is that it’s a viscous cycle. If Haitians could not leave the country. If 90% of medical school graduates and 98% of the children of the rural elite did not emigrate to the US as soon as they are college aged, those people would be the ones to change the system. They have the smarts and the connections to make the system work. And 50 years ago they did have an impact. But emigration gives them and their parents a much easier option. They don’t have to risk fighting. It’s just stupid not to go to the US, Canada or France. Why on earth would someone stay. Think about it: send your kid to one of these developed country with limitless possibilities and good healthcare, or have them stay in poorest country in the western hemisphere with pathetic future for all but the super-rich and horrendous healthcare. No man, you get your kids the hell out.
And so in Haiti the human capital is gone. The only people who are left are the super- rich, the super poor, drug dealers, and people living on remittances. What that means is that the only people left in Haiti either don’t want change, don’t need it, or can’t do anything to effect it.
By the way, this brings up another issue, one that I’m not going to go into deeply here but that basically makes the Haitian State a hopeless case: it has become a narco State. You cannot believe me, you can dismiss it, you can argue. But like anyone who lives here, I see, I hear and I know a lot about the drug trafficking among the political elite and brother, it’s reached a point of hopelessness. Again, I don’t want to go into details because we’re talking about the most powerful politicians in this country but the way it works is that narcos use State and political positions to obtain diplomatic immunity. Once you’re a senator, congressman, ambassador, president or minister, the US can’t touch you. You can care kilos of cocaine in your briefcase and there is nothing the DEA can do about it. And once a narco is in that position, they could not care a less about helping anyone, that’s not why they are there. I should qualify this a little because I’ve known plenty of them. Most are ok people. Most are not killers or, if they are, they don’t like to be violent. But by definition they’re crooks. They operate outside of the legal system. They got into politics to protect themselves from arrest and keep from getting deported. But once there they, of course, use their power to increase profits from the drug trade and most are perfectly happy to stick anything else in their pockets that comes their way. And why not, they’re not civil servants, they’re not career politicians, they didn’t take the job to help anyone but themselves. So why not take the political money as well. And, by the way, the US authorities—the DEA, CIA and by corollary the Embassy and State Department--must know that the majority of the most powerful politicians in Haiti are involved in drugs. There is simply no way that the average guy on the street could know and the US government does not know. But they do little to nothing about it. Indeed, they’ve protected and sponsored some of the very worse of them. It’s the worst imaginable situation for an impoverished country like Haiti and until the US does something to change the status quo it’s truly hopeless.
DU: The reality is that even with a not-so-perfect system of aid people are going to continue to give, whether it be to their local NGO or a large organisation like Partners in Health. In fact, you even point out that more people give than they do vote. So if you could tell donors one thing, what would you like to tell them?
This brings us back to the beginning of this interview.
First off Robert, I know I said the below in the book,
“How can we help when we have not a clue what’s really going on? And worse, how can we help if we’re being misled and lied to?”
but in the context of how people should help, I’m not sure I would say “do some research” , as you seem to have been suggesting. The problem is that if someone does do the research they’re going to become experts in bogus claims because the 95% of the research is bogus. I would never know what I wrote in ‘Swindle’ if I wasn’t here on the ground working for these agencies. There is no way to know. It’s the agencies that control what’s written about them. If someone just set out to do research and they came across my stuff, they’re going to be saying that I’m the outlier and so, if they’re a good researcher, they might dismiss my claims.
If I had to give advice or who and how to give, I would say to look for a small start up mission. Do not give to the big organizations. If you do, you might as well throw the money out the window. And I would encourage giving to medical missions. There you know that if the money makes it past the admin, you’re going to have some kind of impact. Well, you never know. But for me medical care is the big crisis in places like Haiti. You have 10s of thousands of people needlessly dying every year. You have people suffering when they just need to be properly diagnosed or need access to a 10 cent medicine or a 2 dollar vaccine.
And thank you for that advice, Tim! I would say we have certainly touched on a lot of things here today but have only scathed the surface of how aid actually works in Haiti. We are going to be exploring this issue further in the coming weeks. The next four episodes will be focusing on food-sustainability, and what solutions work in this context. You’ve been listening to Development United with Timothy Schwartz, and your host, Robert Smith.