Book review: Travesty in Haiti

Schwartz, Timothy T. 2008. Travesty in Haiti: A True Account of Christian Missions, Orphanages, Food Aid, Fraud and Drug Trafficking. ISBN 978-1-4196-9803-3.

I first heard of Timothy Schwartz's book, Travesty in Haiti, when I was on fieldwork in Port-au-Prince earlier this year. After reading a synopsis I was disinclined to read the book, thinking it sounded like the work of a soapbox-standing, diatribe-ranting guy with a personal vendetta that would contain little of balanced value. But my good friend Matthew Levasseur encouraged me to read it, and I'm glad I did. From the first pages, the book rings true with my own brief experience of Haiti.

Travesty in Haiti by Timothy T. SchwartzSchwartz spent a decade in Haiti, first conducting research on childrearing practices for his doctoral thesis in Anthropology, and then working for international NGOs such as CARE. Focusing on a fictional peasant settlement called The Hamlet, Schwartz describes how half a century, and millions of dollars, worth of aid have not just failed to help Haiti: in many instances they have made it worse. The dozens of detailed cases he present indict foreigners and Haitians alike. From the planning stages through to delivery, foreign aid is appropriated for all kinds of uses other than its puported goal of helping the poor.

Schwartz's book answers the question that is on everyone's lips regarding Haiti: where does all the money go? This question is all the more pertinent since the earthquake in January last year, but the answers are probably essentially the same (a point I'll follow up when Paul Farmer's next book, Haiti After the Earthquake, comes out next month). Within weeks of arriving in the capital, I went on a tour of orphanages with my colleague Espelencia Baptiste and a friend of hers who works for an orphanage organization. Her friend explained to us how at maximum a third of children in orphanages are actually orphans: the rest are pulled in to attract funds. Most of the funds aren't spend on the children at all. The directors of the organization know this, but they do nothing to make the orphanages accountable. It is too much of a business.

Schwartz's findings go far beyond my own observations. Working for CARE, he was put in charge of researching food aid needs in orphanages in one particular province. He visited every single orphanage and found that all of them were a scam. The one orphanage he found that was run by well-meaning, honest people was largely populated with the children of the wealthy. Rather than putting the money raised by US congregations towards caring for the poorest children, the missionaries had to stock their school with the children of the powerful, just so that they could actually operate in Haiti. Getting vehicles registered, utilities provided, and resources supplied could only be achieved by calling in favours. Once these favours were returned, there was little in the way of resources left to achieve the original aims of the mission.

The author's description of how food aid works is horrific. Even in the best light, food aid looks bad. According to Schwartz, USAID provides food aid to NGOs on the proviso that a portion of it is sold on local markets. Food aid causes market prices to plummet, which means that poor farmers receive very little money for their crops. International aid organizations know this, but they depend upon the sale of this food to run their operations. Even worse (and the NGOs know this too), the people who need food aid the most hardly ever receive it, as much of it gets commandeered by people along the supply chain and sold in local markets. As a result, nutrition plummets, the exact opposite of what food aid is supposed to do. Peasants would prefer to have technical assistance to produce better crops than supplementary products that they rarely receive.

The medical field is not much better. Schwartz points to some successful immunization programs, but also cites cases where badly  trained medical doctors diagnose incorrectly, make patients worse, or even kill them by prescribing the wrong medicine. Medical staff are rude to rural patients and do not listen to their descriptions of their ailments. He cites one man who says that it is safer to see a local shaman than a university-trained practitioner: at least the herbs the shaman gives you are unlikely to do you any harm. Public hospitals are a business to which doctors turn up for maybe an hour per day, spending the rest of their time in their own private clinics and stealing public resources in order to run them.

In the end, the only thing that helps The Hamlet is the drug trade. By hijacking a shipment of cocaine, residents are able to achieve more development overnight than they gained from all the NGO efforts over the course of the past five decades. New fishing boats, motorbikes, generators, and better houses figure among the gains made from residents' brief democratization of the drug trade. Schwartz leaves the country, concerned that too many people are trying to pull him into the drug trade, and completely disillusioned with development.

My question is this: if everything in Haiti is a business, and nobody knows how to stop this, would it be better to stop trying to give charity and instead approach Haiti with a business mentality? Can we leverage the tools of the market to make the distribution of goods transparent in the first instance, and better distributed in the second? After all, Haiti's comparative advantage is commonly thought to be its poverty, but they are highly skilled in trading, entrepeneurialism, financial practices, networking and communication. What knds of tools would help Haiti take control of its own economic base?