Fault Lines

First of all my sympathies to those in Chile who have lost their houses, their livelihoods, their family members, and their sense of stability. Last weekend’s earthquake was unquestionably damaging. At 8.8 on the Richter scale, it was also almost a hundred times more powerful than January’s quake in Haiti. Thankfully its epicenter was farther from large urban centers. Thankfully also Chile has slowly recovered from its violent coup d’état that ushered in a round of neoliberalism (In fact Chile was its first laboratory – U of Chicago economist Milton Friedman was the official economic advisor to dictator Augusto Pinochet just months after the coup). While Haiti fades from the headlines, the situation on the ground in Haiti remains urgent, as only a third of the survivors have their needs for a temporary dry shelter met.

While it is absolutely true that Chile, like the U.S., has its share of poverty and inequality, Haiti’s development indicators are and were much worse than Chile’s. For example, Haiti’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP, total value of goods and services) per person was $428 in 2005, while Chile’s per capita GDP was $8,350 in 2007. Half of Haiti’s people earn $1 per day or less, whereas only 2 percent of Chile’s citizens live under the “international poverty line” of $1.25 per day. The latest figures for child mortality are instructive: 74 children out of 1,000 die in Haiti whereas only 9 do in Chile. For all these reasons, Haiti ranked 149th out of 182 countries on the U.N.’s Human Development Index (HDI), whereas Chile ranked 44th.

The explanations for these differences are many, but they cluster around two major themes. The first theme, much more widely researched, repeated, published, spread, promoted, and believed by international agencies, mainstream media, and most members of certain academic disciplines is that Haiti’s failures of development are because of an unbroken legacy of dictators, Haiti’s “kleptocracy” (Fatton, 2002; Rotberg, 2003). There is an implicit binary frame of a “good” civil society and a “bad” state. Missing from this discussion is the role of foreign actors.

Another binary frame which talks past this first comes from Haiti solidarity advocates and other scholars who have closer relationships on the ground, that Haiti has been the victim of numerous occupations, a usurious debt that France claimed in exchange for its recognition of Haiti’s independence, etc. Close observers of the last coup in Haiti would note that it was France’s Chirac, not Bush, that first called for Aristide to resign. Many believe that this is because of Aristide’s demand that France pay some $22 billion in reparations for this extortion.

The problem with some variants of this analysis is that if we do not acknowledge the role of Haiti’s state we are powerless to respond to softball questions from the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and others. The recent news item that the government of Haiti has begun taxing aid coming into Haiti is a good case for the need for a more appropriate frame of analysis, that most people within Haiti have, that acknowledges three sets of actors: the world system in all its guises, the elites and Haiti’s state apparatus, and Haiti’s people organized in social movements and what might be called “civil society.”

Meanwhile, Haiti’s crisis continues though it has faded from mainstream media coverage. It has literally disappeared from the front page, even of progressive websites like CommonDreams. We may be entering a world of “aid fatigue.” Monday was the last day for donations to emergency relief efforts to count on individuals’ 2009 taxes. The funds raised – though small compared to the urgent and long-term reconstruction needs – are indeed generous. As of a month after the earthquake the estimate of aid donated is $600 million for Haiti relief efforts (compare this to the $20 billion in Wall Street bonuses).

And yet, there are still an estimated 600,000 people today who are not covered when the rainy seasons come. According to aid agencies’ own estimates, only 35% of the needs for tents and tarps in Port-au-Prince are being met – and this up from 30% a week and a half ago. While the rains haven’t come yet, they surely will. I join many others in asking why this is, especially given this outpouring of generosity.

One problem appears to be on its way to be resolved: the lack of coordination. The U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti has created a website that allows donors, NGOs, and grassroots organizations to coordinate their efforts. It does have a wiki function which means that the groups doing the work can post what they are doing, and smaller, grassroots efforts are invited to use this tool as well as the large NGOs. It behooves everyone who is offering aid to use this tool, a directory of Civil Society Organizations: http://csohaiti.org/

This is only a single tool, and it can’t solve everything by itself. Still left to be addressed is the communication with the survivors receiving the aid. More than a month and a half after the earthquake there are still many people who do not know if the aid is trickling their way. Some people like my friend Lesley wonder whether this isn’t part of some big plan to wipe poor people out of Port-au-Prince altogether. Already the government is telling people to leave Champs-de-Mars, the “National Mall” which houses the National Palace and return to their neighborhoods (that presumably they left because aid was not arriving). And donors and grassroots efforts alike seem to be telling people to quit the city of Port-au-Prince. This is irresponsible for a couple of reasons. First, many Port-au-Prince residents, particularly the youth in the shantytowns, grew up in Port-au-Prince. Half of the country’s population is 15 or younger. Secondly, without quick and sustainable job creation, this migration simply displaces the problem of food security into the remote rural areas, already marginalized because of communications and physical infrastructure.

A second challenge we need to issue the NGOs that have been entrusted by our government and generous citizens is to also answer some basic questions about the aid they are delivering. Particularly in face of this aid fatigue, NGOs and other groups who are collecting money must do things differently than they have in the past. The first thing this particular NGO researcher and Haiti solidarity activist would like to see immediately stop is what we community organizers used to call “poverty pimping” or what could be called lately “disaster voyeurism.” The seemingly innocent “real world” depictions of the actually existing poverty have real material consequences. True, a naked child with a distended belly or the overwhelming image of a city in ruins might trigger generosity in the moment. But it does Haitian people, particularly the survivors, a disservice in the short, medium, and long term. First and foremost it continues in the unbroken tradition since the Haitian Revolution of reviling, “monkeying,” belittling, infantilizing, and further brutalizing Haitian people. Haiti’s bad press is powerful: of 1200 people I polled in guest lectures before I stopped this practice, only 1 had a positive first impression of Haiti. This belief that Haiti is unfit to govern itself and is not deserving of urgently needed aid may be contributing to a backlash, at the very least a drying up of private donations. I hope not. At the very least this discourse has also justified several foreign occupations.

Another reason this practice of framing Haiti within this poverty voyeurism narrative is that it hides critical, life-saving information about the plan on the ground, what exact aid will actually arrive in Haiti and what its impact will be. In my first public post after the earthquake, before I went to Haiti, I offered a list of questions for people to ask when considering donating to Haiti. Given the proliferation of fundraising efforts, this is becoming even more crucial. Before giving direct aid to Haiti or choosing a group to receive funds, we need to do our homework. It is our responsibility to really think through these questions:

1) Who, exactly, is on the ground delivering aid in Port-au-Prince? How do they select partners and leaders within these groups?

2) What is the group’s capacity to get aid to Haiti and directly to the impacted groups?

3) What relationships do they have with the community and community groups? Who sets the priorities? Do they have long-term partnerships or are they grasping at straws?

4) What percent of funds will actually get to Haiti? What percent is overhead?

5) What is the plan? Does it address the current needs (medical first, food, water and shelter)?

6) Is it offering direct response or is it an “umbrella” group funding local partners? How are local partners chosen?

Until these questions are all answered it is frankly irresponsible to collect funds. For those NGOs and mission groups collecting funds, it would be good to include this information on the website to make it easier for people who would like to contribute or organize fundraisers. Also in the interests of accountability it would be good to post the organization’s most recent 990 form required by U.S. law for all nonprofit groups in order to maintain their tax-exempt status. This form – already required by law to be furnished to all U.S. taxpayers who ask for it – lists the major sources of income and expenses for the organization.

I know this sounds harsh, especially to people who never think to question their generosity. At a recent conference in New Orleans (more on this for another post) senior scholar in another field critiqued a 12-minute presentation based on my previous post that an anthropologist who is “too close to the field” could not be “scientific” or at least “methodical.” My response to him and the audience is, like it or not, the data are clear: neoliberalism has failed Haiti. All development indicators have seen a steady decline from 1980 to 2007, as of the last data I methodically examined, except for two. These two indicators – the incidence of HIV/AIDS and literacy – are exceptions precisely because they were mutual priorities of the elected governments of Haiti and donor groups. Since the 1995 Dole Amendment, USAID was prevented from funding the government of Haiti, a manifestation of a divided U.S. government and the U.S. government’s mistrust of Haiti’s elected governments of Aristide and Préval. However, because it was a priority, USAID was allowed to work with Haiti’s government on HIV/AIDS. Haiti’s success in combating the disease is a ray of hope: in just over a decade since 1993, the seroprevalence went from 6.2 percent to about 3.2 percent.

This political conflict added fuel to the already-hot fire of neoliberalism, in the so-called “Washington Consensus” that donor groups like the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and USAID imposed on countries in the Global South like Haiti. One major plank in neoliberalism is a distrust of states and a preference for private-sector initiatives and the elusive concept of “civil society.” Since the 1980s, NGOs have proliferated in Haiti and elsewhere. The 1990s saw a tenfold increase in their numbers, from 6,000 worldwide in 1990 to an estimated 60,000 by 1998 (Economist, cited in Regan 2003:3). Currently, there are so many NGOs that we can’t even guess at their number (Riddell, 2007:53). This rise in the number of NGOs is matched with an increase in funding through them. Globally, in 2005, it is estimated that NGOs channeled anywhere from 3.7 to 7.8 billion U.S. dollars of “humanitarian assistance” (Development Initiatives, 2006:47), and 24 billion in overall development funding (Riddell, 2007:259).

The pattern is true in Haiti, with only 74 NGOs out of an official count of 343 being present before the dechoukaj, before the ouster of foreign-supported dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. Noted above, all of USAID funds go through NGOs. A senior U.N. official recently estimated that for all donors 90 percent of aid goes directly to NGOs. Haitian researcher Sauveur Pierre Étienne called this situation an “Invasion.” All this is to say, whereas NGOs may not have created this neoliberal framework, they accepted in infusion of official government aid – known in the field as “Overseas Development Assistance.” Like it or not, the fact that NGOs accepted and continue to seek out more of this aid to preside over the development system makes NGOs accountable for its clear failure in Haiti.

With all due respect to my conference discussant and a wave of newly-minted Haiti “experts,” the facts not only speak for themselves, they shout. As a structure – yes, there are notable exceptions – NGOs have failed Haiti, particularly the pèp la, Haiti’s poor majority. Most pèp la I know are deeply suspicious of NGOs: they have the biggest houses, biggest offices, biggest white SUVs, newest computers, etc. Many people have commented on a steady rise in housing costs as a direct result of occupying forces and NGOs paying inflated rents. NGOs have become the backbone of the middle class – in fact, they are becoming a new status group, an “NGO class” in the eyes of many. As my friend Télèfe said, “as long as the aid passes through the bigwigs, we poor won’t see a cent.”

I can almost hear people retort with the popular refrain: but what about the failures of the Haitian state, the kleptocracy? With all due respect to certain members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that is not our affair and responsibility but Haitian peoples’ particularly the survivors. To enter a sovereign country’s political sphere – even or some would say especially bringing aid – is imperialist. One way out of this approach is to take the lead of the people who have lived this long-term crisis, and adopt a more sophisticated, nuanced solidarity, a tripartite analysis like the one discussed above.

Given the multitudes of perspectives, anyone offering easy answers, especially now, should be suspect. But the long-term solution requires a rebuilt, accountable, democratic, but functioning state that receives donors’ support. Partners in Health and the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights have published a report about the urgent need for a rights-based approach to development that includes this basic respect for the government of Haiti. An ad-hoc coalition of Washington-based NGOs has made the same point. See the CEPR blog for these and other reports.

But the subject of reconstruction can wait for another essay.

In the mean time, where are the tents?

If Haiti hasn’t erupted into violence, it is because despite the racist misunderstandings of Haiti and Haiti’s people, the survivors have the dignity, determination, community orientation, and togetherness that frankly we here in the U.S. need to learn: one needs only to witness televised conflicts over the last snow shovel at Walmart (and if the conflict involves African Americans or people of darker hues, a tagline like “looting”).

I have more hope than ever that Haitian people will survive this crisis because I have seen what Haitian people are accomplishing on their own, together. For the moment at least, in my neighborhood at least, both political and economic divisions have become the ancien régime. Every report back from the grassroots confirms this as well. By themselves, people on my block set up a medical clinic and an information gathering apparatus under a tarp my Belgian roommate left. They somehow managed to connect to the internet, and have a team of people listening to the radio. All I had to do was suggest a meeting and my neighbors drew up a map of Christ-Roi, some 25,000 people, and went about / continued collecting information about who was alive, who was dead; whose body was still trapped, whose home was still standing; what the urgent needs were, exactly how much water they had, exactly how much food, who had a car, and who had buckets to transport water, etc. And with very minimal assistance from this blan, they did get the water delivered and had lights at night.

There are approaches to offer solidarity-based assistance to survivors, who need to be directing this process. It is a very complex, difficult, heart-rending process that requires humility, self-critique, dialogue, fostering long-term relationships, and knowing our place. But it is possible. Flights to Haiti are scheduled to resume within the week. The overland route through the Dominican Republic has opened up and there are grassroots efforts beginning to work. Last week there was a conference of scores of grassroots organizations in Port-au-Prince coordinated by KONPAY to discuss strategy. In addition to her critical on-the-ground reporting, longtime Haiti solidarity activist Beverly Bell has organized an effort called Other Worlds, after the slogan of the World Social Forum. And after some fifty hours with three people and countless phone calls and e-mails, donations for the grassroots groups in documentary film Poto Mitan are finally going to Haiti through fiscal agent Lambi Fund.

But it is the Haitian survivors who are the heroes of this story, whose perspective needs to be central throughout this process. Their needs articulated (like tents, tarps, and/or more solid makeshift homes, and food Haitian people would prepare themselves) need to direct the aid that is coming.

This difference in perspective, this fault line, is not merely an intellectual concern. We who plan on standing by the side of Haitian people who are rebuilding their country need to learn our place and to learn how to offer this aid in the way that the survivors want.

Hopefully, the fault lines will not grow throughout the reconstruction process.

MARK SCHULLER is Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at York College, the City University of New York. He co-edited Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction and co-directed documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. He is completing a book about foreign aid and NGOs in Haiti.


Development Initiatives. (2006). Global Humanitarian Assistance 2006. London: Development Initiatives.

Fatton, R., Jr. (2002). Haiti’s Predatory Republic: the Unending Transition to Democracy. Boudler, CO: Lynne Reiner Publishers.

Regan, J., & (ICKL), I. C. K. L. (2003). ONG “altènatif” – zanmi oswa ennmi lit radikal? Port-au-Prince: Institute Culturel Karl Leveque.

Riddell, R. (2007). Does Foreign Aid Really Work? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rotberg, R. (2003). Haiti’s Turmoil: Politics and Policy Under Aristide and Clinton. Cambridge, Mass: World Peace Foundation.


Mark Schuller is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Nonprofit and NGO Studies at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. He is the author or co-editor of seven books, including Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti. Schuller is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009), and active in several solidarity efforts.