Smoke and Mirrors in Haiti

In many senses the lack of progress following Haiti’s earthquake centers on housing. Assessing the damage, a team evaluated 382,256 housing units in Port-au-Prince. Of these, 205,539 were tagged “green,” ready for human habitation, 99,043 “yellow,” requiring significant repair, and 77,674 “red,” which were so damaged so as to require demolition. Anthropologist Timothy Schwartz led a team to write a report for USAID, who funded the housing evaluation. The report contained some important warnings; despite its technical successes and easy-to-understand coding system, the program didn’t noticeably alter people’s decisions to move back into homes. Most alarmingly, 73,846 of 115,384 (sic.) “red” houses had been re-inhabited by January 2011.

In addition to these carefully researched findings, Schwartz included others that were not a part of his mandate from USAID, about the official estimates of the death toll and the “legitimate” internally displaced persons (IDPs). According to his own blog on, USAID denied publication of the report because it attempted to distance itself from these controversial claims. But Schwartz persevered, leaking the draft report to the press. Finally,Agence France-Presse (AFP’s) Emily Troutman published a story about it on May 27.

This story triggered a heated debate on a subject that for most Haitians was only marginally relevant and even disrespectful. Blogs and publiclistservs such as the 8,000-member “Corbett List” registered scores of email commentaries that degraded into ad hominem attacks. Like many other peoples displaced by the holocaust of the middle passage, Haitian culture grants a central role to its ancestors whose spirits return home, to ginen, Africa. To many, digging up the question of the numbers of dead disrespected the memory of loved ones and the ancestors. The Haitian government’s official death toll from January 12 was 230,000, which was repeated by the NGOs and the media. As the first anniversary loomed, without citing additional research or proof, Haitian Prime Minister Max Bellerive announced that the earthquake killed 316,000 people. As Schwartz blogged, this was a deliberate inflation aimed at loosening up more funds for the relief and reconstruction effort. Dozens of news stories, including in large-circulationWashington Post, New York Times, Newsweek, and Time, repeated this finger-wagging, more editorializing than news reporting.

While basing Schwartz’ critique of the Haitian government on its lack of transparency in its research methods, the leaked report was similarly opaque. For its part, USAID distanced itself from the most controversial claims, citing inconsistencies and irregularities within Schwartz’ research methods. Only two stories that made it to Google’s daily news alerts reported this critique, despite the dozens that used the leaked report to lodge a critique against the Haitian government, many drawing on familiar narratives of Haitian incompetence, adding to Haiti’s unending bad press. The damage was already done. True, Schwartz was acting as an individual, not USAID, but as a humanitarian actor nonetheless. Schwartz’ crusade was aimed at a clear, if unflattering, gaze back at the humanitarian effort, particularly NGOs who he argued were complicit in the inflation of the death toll for self-interested ends.

As a study of the impact of the housing evaluation, it was an important intervention. But the report that was leaked to the press – and uncritically repeated – did not explain the methodology for Schwartz’ un-commissioned campaign: for example, what sampling criteria were used, both in terms of neighborhoods and individuals, how this sample represents larger trends, etc. There seems to have been no recognition of the possibility that entire structures leveled to rubble would have been impossible to number, whose family members were all either dead or living in the IDP camps. The report cited precise numbers, not rounded, to estimate both the numbers of dead and the “legitimate” IDPs, despite the conventions of rounding based on significant digits within statistical research, declaring there to be from 46,190 to 84,961 dead, giving an average of 65,575, a little more than a fifth of the government’s estimate. Part of the study’s argument rests on contrasting its precision with the Haitian government’s lack of precision. Conclusions were reached about IDP camps without researchers visiting the camps. The report estimated 258,085 “current” IDPs (range of 141,158 to 375,031 compared to the IOM’s estimate of 680,000 from the Displacement Tracking Matrix or “DTM”), with 42,608 “legitimate” IDPs.

Researchers with the Small Arms Survey conducted an independent study, much more methodologically grounded, of the death toll, lower than the Haitian government’s estimate but significantly higher than Schwartz’ – 158,000. This estimate first appeared in a Los Angeles Times editorial on July 12, eighteen months after the earthquake and a month and a half following the leak of Schwartz’ report.

The debate was primarily focused on the death toll, leaving the other unsubstantiated claims about the “legitimate” IDPs and incendiary statements such as people only living in the camps for the free access to services unaddressed, to say the least about the study’s most troubling finding of a majority of “red” houses being reoccupied. The total silence, the attention deflected away from this discussion of the “illegitimate” IDPs, was an insidious outcome. With the public debate focusing on what to most Haitian people I know consider a red herring – with nothing to be done about the dead, no one ultimately responsible for their deaths – the inflammatory and controversial allegations about living IDPs, whose rights were actively being challenged by a range of actors, became tacitly accepted by the lack of scrutiny.

Unfortunately, these allegations were not true. The DTM continued to enumerate just under 600,000 IDPs as late as November, six months after the Schwartz report. The IOM contracted with French NGO ActEd to survey 15,446 IDPs about their intentions, publishing a report in early August 2011 when there were 630,000 IDPs still in the camps. According to this report, 94% of IDPs wanted to leave the camps. Corroborating this information, I led a team of eight State University of Haiti and five City University of New York students in a five-week study of eight IDP camps.[1]We selected four that according to the DTM were adopted by NGO management agencies and four who did not have an NGO management agency. Most were about the same size (200-400 families at the beginning of the research, per the DTM) and were situated on private land. Our survey of 800 randomly-selected families[2] yielded a similar result: 92% of IDPs wanted to leave as of July, when the survey was conducted. Our survey also showed that 79.5 percent of residents were renters before the earthquake, so even if their houses were tagged “green” they could not return because of how high rents skyrocketed. The Christian Science Monitor reported that rental costs have shot up by a factor of five to ten since the earthquake. In addition, as of November only a few thousand damaged housing units rebuilt or rehabbed. In short: IDPs can’t leave because they have nowhere to go.

In addition to not being able to leave, the “free services” that ostensibly were the magnet to the camps – notably water and toilet services – were being shut off as NGO contracts ended. As of October 2011, only 6 percent of IDP camps had water services according to international agency staff, and in November water trucking services had to stop per government decree. In the eight camps studied, water and sanitation service stopped in four camps (three hadn’t had service when research began in June 2011). To the oft-repeated quote – amplified and justified by the Schwartz report – of people suddenly appearing in unused tents whenever a distribution was made, my eight research teams spent five weeks in the same camp and noticed a constant level of comings and goings, economic activity, and social life. In other words, they were all “real” camps. To the concern about the free aid being a magnet pulling tens of thousands of people from the provinces, the survey showed only 3.5 percent came since 2010, with the mean year of migration to Port-au-Prince being 1993, which follows the general pattern of Haiti’s rural exodus. Simply put, all but 3.5% are “real” IDPs.

Whether or not this deflection was intentional, certainly by a maverick like Schwartz who has criticized NGOs, it was useful to many actors. Landowners and government officials such as Delmas Mayor Wilson Jeudy who actively sought to close IDP camps, found justification. Days after the APF’s story (that uncritically quoted Jeudy) Jeudy again destroyed an IDP camp on public land in his municipality, his second violent act within two weeks, citing a similar refrain of the IDPs not being “real” victims but criminals. Jeudy employed armed irregular forces to rip people’s tents and destroy their belongings.

This unchallenged discourse of “illegitimate” IDPs was also useful to humanitarian agencies increasingly on the defensive following billions in aid spent and little evident progress. If the number of IDPs were artificially inflated and most not “legitimate,” humanitarian agencies have fewer obligations. USAID was in a bipartisan U.S. House of Representatives spotlight: H.R. 1016, on May 10, 2011, calling the agency to account for the billions and apparent lack of progress. Indeed, members of Congress who represent large Haitian communities sent a scathing condemnation of the Haitian government for not protecting IDPs two days before AFP leaked the draft Schwartz report.

Whether or not Schwartz acting as an individual had intended these outcomes, the AFP article deflected attention and criticism against both the Haitian government and USAID and offered ideological support for reactionary positions, justifying forced evictions and lack of progress for IDPs. When the smoke and mirrors are set side, the facts, carefully researched and established, are clear. Unfortunately, the IDP camps are not going away anytime soon, despite everyone’s wishes to the contrary – especially from those who have nowhere else to go. Rather than blame the victims, topping our holiday wish list should be an effective strategy to rebuild housing. 

Mark Schuller is an activist anthropologist at York College (CUNY) and l’Université d’État d’Haïti. Schuller’s research on globalization, NGOs, gender, and disasters in Haiti has been published in over a dozen book chapters. He is the author of forthcoming Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International aid, and NGOs (Rutgers, 2012) and co-editor of four volumes, including Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake, to be published in January by KumarianPress. He is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. He chairs the Society for Applied Anthropology’s Human Rights and Social Justice Committee and is active in many solidarity efforts. He can be reached at:



I would like to thank my research assistants for their work in collecting this information. York College – Sabine Bernard, Sandy Nelzy, Adlin Noël, Stephanie Semé and TraceyUlcena and l’Université d’État d’Haïti – Marie Laviaude Alexis, Théagène Dauphin, Mackenzy Dor, Jean-Rony Emile, Junior Jean François, Robenson Jean-Julien, Roody JeanTherilus, and Castelot Val.

[1] Camps were Place de la Paix, Delmas 2; Saint-Louis de Gonzague, Delmas 31; HANCHO I, on the border of Delmas and Cité Soleil; Nan Bannan, Delmas 40; Carradeuxrelocation camp, on the border of Delmas and Tabarre in the neighborhood of Carradeux; Kolonbi, Delmas 19 by the industrial park; Mairie de Carrefour, Diquini; and CAJIT, inPaloma (Carrefour).

[2] We selected one in every x household (tent); for a camp with 400 families it would be one in every four tents. In camps with sub-sectors, we took steps to ensure parity across these sectors.

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.