Focus Bloggers

On the Role of History and Social Science in Policy

By Kiran Jayaram, Visiting Focus Blogger

Published on June 21, 2013

Five days after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I smuggled myself onto a bus chartered by the Dominican government, and for the next two weeks, I assisted the relief efforts in Haiti by working with the Cruz Roja Dominicana (CRD).  Indeed, the Dominican government and non-state actors in the Dominican Republic played important roles in the immediate aftermath, as I will discuss below, but some of the good intentions were undermined by existing social dynamics.  Policy initiatives, especially during disasters, should be based upon solid understandings of history (lest we be doomed to repeat it) and of people’s experiences gained though social science.  Rather than depict angels and demons, I offer a sober sketch of the pre and post-earthquake dynamics of the island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, after which I mention a few details from my time as a relief worker.

Both in the past and presently, Haitians and Dominicans have co-existed amicably.  Slavery in the Dominican Republic was abolished while the country was under Haitian rule.  Though certain Dominican groups resented the so-called Haitian unification of the island from 1822-1844, others supported it due to potential trade benefits.  After the 2010 earthquake, President Fernández opened the border between the two countries to facilitate relief efforts.  The Dominican Red Cross was one of the first international groups operating after the earthquake, which I will discuss shortly.  In the contemporary era, Haiti represents the largest foreign market for Dominicans, accounting for at least 25% of all exports.  Additionally, Haitian students represent the largest group of foreign students in the Dominican Republic.  Furthermore, there have been festivals with both Haitian and Dominican musicians, sometimes in the same band.  Finally, there are countless children across the island who have a Haitian and a Dominican parent.  Yet despite this amity, animosity also exists.

Another version of island history, often popularized by xenophobic Dominican nationalists, emphasizes that the country declared its independence from Haiti.  This history includes brutalities perpetuated by the Haitian military during its “Occupation” of the neighboring country.  In the 20th century, such anti-Haitianism manifested itself in the 1937 Kout Kouto, where forces aligned with President Trujillo hacked to death thousands of Haitians and Haitian Dominicans.  During the first few years of the 21st century, multiple examples of vigilantism occurred, including the beheading of Carlos Nérilus by Dominican mob in 2009.  After the earthquake, it was widely understood that many Dominicans used the pretext of a cholera threat to antagonize Haitians, and even some recovery efforts were tainted with anti-Haitian bias.  As I write, details are emerging about how a Haitian in Juan Dolio who was legally in the Dominican Republic died after Dominican immigration agents beat him during an immigration sweep.  Sometimes, it appears that Hispaniola is a 200-year-old cockfight.

My two weeks working with the CRD revealed how both of the above dynamics not only exist, but also may co-exist.  While I was in one of the earliest groups of international rescue and relief workers to arrive, I was surprised to see Dominicans already present when I arrived at the Societé Nationale des Parcs Industriels (SONAPI) factory lot, where the CRD was based.  Clearly, their responsiveness was to be commended.  Over the next few days, more CRD workers showed up, including some Haitians who were working or studying in the Dominican Republic.  Whether loading or unloading trucks with provisions, distributing to neighborhoods, picking up CRD workers’ meals from the mobile kitchens sent by the Dominican government, or tidying up our camp each morning, we all worked together.  However, along with this apparent celestial harmony was an air of something less than benign.  There were whispers by some Dominican workers of the “rat-eating Haitians” in the world beyond our UN-protected camp.  Also, while waiting for breakfast every morning, Haitian CRD workers were tacitly relegated to the status of the primary garbage collectors for the entire camp, as Dominicans picked up only what was within their reach.  While a fuller explanation of these anecdotes and Haitian-Dominican Relations is beyond the scope of this blog, my post-earthquake relief work underscores how, as Bob Marley sang, “your worst enemy may be your best friend, and your best friend, your worst enemy.”

With such complicated relations, policy-makers and those engaged directly with people in Hispaniola must consider how their interventions contribute to either building back better or burning bridges.  Anyone working on the island who is worth their salt (or perhaps more apropos, sugar) knows of the sins of omission and neutrality.  We must allow social and political histories along with solid social science data based in people’s experience to inform our activities.  Of course, such an approach is only warranted if we want to effect change, not only in Haiti, but also across Hispaniola.


The Invisible Walls of Aid

By Scott Freeman, Visiting Scholar

Posted on June 17, 2013

In order to prepare students for the aid industry, graduate and undergraduate institutions have designed degrees and concentrations in international development. Focusing on thinking critically about policy and procedure, students are ostensibly prepared so that previous errors will not be repeated again. But once one is ‘in’ the industry, is knowledge about ‘good policy’ enough?

Conducting research on international development aid most often involves examining a project or initiative, looking at both the implementer and recipient perspective, and using data to critically analyze the situation. Without going into a large literature review, suffice it to say this trail has been walked more than once.

A number of authors (Fechter and Hindman 2011, Lewis 2011), have followed aid workers themselves in an attempt to understand their realities, rather than basing criticism only on the bookends of written proposals and completed projects.

Looking at the ways that movements and interactions might be regulated within certain NGOs allows researchers examining policy to move from considering just documents and paper, to thinking about the individuals that make up the development industry. Their movements and interactions are actually key parts of aid, and for some NGO workers, may be a major lens through which ‘the way things work’ is fostered.

While hanging out on a beach in the southwest of Haiti, I had drinks with a number of NGO workers, one of whom enlightened me to the Port au Prince “NGO world” of mobility and immobility. He worked for an agency that was particularly lenient: he had a driver, but was free to drive himself on evenings and weekends. However, he shared with me that most of his other friends and colleagues outside of his organization did not benefit from such leniency. Rules governed where and with whom they could drive. Their movement was largely relegated to a company car. To get in another car, the license plate had to be taken down, the driver verified- a whole series of checks performed before riding in another car, that often served to derail any impromptu rides. Furthermore, his colleagues’ movements within the city might be limited to particular districts. For example, he said, they may not be able to go have a beer in a roadside bar at night in the Delmas area.

His perspective on the situation was eye opening. While beer at a roadside watering hole proves to be out of the question for some workers, getting one of his lower income Haitian friends from Delmas toc come up to an expat drinking hole in Petionville seemed equally as prohibitive. The high prices of drinks, and the difficulty/safety of transport on motorcycle at late hours of the night meant that more often than not, his plans were thwarted.

The NGO worker saw these restrictions as creating a class division that inhibited interactions. He was friends with Haitians of different social classes, but with these security rules in place, facilitating the meeting of one NGO worker with another Haitian friend for a drink became nearly impossible.

What happens when social interactions are restricted in space and time? Are security policies contributing to a growing gap between expat aid workers and the broad diversity of Haitian citizens?

The intersecting immobilities in Port au Prince have implications for how Haiti is experienced and described. These effects ripple through the design of projects and initiatives and, in narratives of Haiti’s  insecurity and limited ‘capacity’, buttress the neo-colonial justification for foreign aid itself.


Images and “Saving”

By Scott Freeman, Visiting Scholar 

Posted on May 9, 2013

As an anthropologist, and one that focuses on Haiti, it is imperative to think and reflect on representation: how we represent those we work with, and to what end. These representations are not some sort of post-modern exercise in self absorption (though in academia, anything can become an exercise of self absorption). The ways in which objects, places, and people are represented has a profound effect materially. In the case of Haiti, it legitimizes extractive occupations and the continual presence of international powers using Haiti for markets and labor. It also legitimizes the short term mission trips that populate many of the flights to Haiti.

I recently gave a guest lecture at Montgomery College in Maryland. During that lecture and the following discussion, we thought through some of the work of Mary Renda (“Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism, 1915-1940” (2000)), in which she discusses the occupation of Haiti by US marine forces. Peppered through are the words of the US marines, led by Smedley Butler. He referred to the Haitian soldiers as “my little chocolate fellows.” Using this phrase, we turned to the ideas of paternalism. Within those four words, we uncovered the pejorative and racialized account of Haitians that legitimized an occupation. Writing back to the Senate, the Marines expressed that they had encountered “a huge estate that belonged to minors.” This language fostered a moral superiority that legitimized an invasion.

During that lecture, the students and I discussed not only how this language dehumanizes and diminishes, but also how there are material consequences of those actions. Private industry (bankers, railroad owners) pressured the US occupation of Haiti, and the private gains that were at stake motivated Woodrow Wilson’s administration to enter and formally begin the occupation. But only, of course, with the moral superiority that permeated those paternalistic statements.

Our discussion then turned to the earthquake of 2010, and how this discourse continues through the present day. I asked students to look through the winning photographs from the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography in 2011. The photographs are startling, so advance with caution. Certainly, they depict the death and sorrow that permeated the earthquake. But there is a startling and dehumanizing of representation that runs through these photos. Images of violence, the grotesque, and a type of neo-colonial salvation are side by side, and in the collection, the narrative of primitivism and violence are kept alive and well.

Looting and pillaging are depicted repeatedly throughout the collection, giving a sense of widespread social disorder. Yet other authors and scholars have repeatedly contested this, arguing that following the earthquake, “there was no violence or ‘a day without rule.’ In the midst of near disaster, people were trying to go on” (Katz, 2012).

Alongside violence, the series of photographs highlights the elderly and defines Haiti through an odd lens of helplessness. Looking down from above, we see the elderly given a bath on open toilet seats. There are no faces, just bodies. In that moment, an unclothed elder is juxtaposed with open toilet seats as he is bathed by an attendant. There is a mixing and molding of profane (toilets, waste) and helpless immobility (elderly, wheelchairs). With these images we are urged to think about Haiti and the earthquake in terms of helplessness, a helplessness that exists in a space of ‘contaminated mortality.’

But perhaps the most significant images are those of the foreign relief worker saving a Haitian baby. Or the foreign doctor hugging a child. In these moments of caring, of power and compassion, the foreign, white, aid worker is comes to the salvation of children. Juxtaposed with the previous photographs, that salvation becomes defined against a contaminated helplessness and violence, proposing the foreigner as savior for the catastrophe.

Gina Athena Ulysse, the talented performer and anthropologist, does a far better job than I at deconstructing these representations of Haitians. She writes how Haitians have often been portrayed historically as fractures and fragments, bodies without minds, heads without bodies, or simply roving spirits (see Tectonic Shifts, 2012). In these photos, these fragments are spread in a very particular narrative of disaster. Fragments of bodies. Helplessness. Not the Haiti of solidarity, the cooperative, the neighbor lending hand to neighbor. Rather, Haiti the odd, the irregular, the ‘exceptional’ (as Troulliot might have us say). In the midst of all of this, the cure presented is the white savior.

Writing from a school of international affairs, one must think about the effects that these images continue to have on conversations of politics and policy. Do these types of images play roles in justifying international meddling in Haiti’s affairs, the removal and appointment of Presidents? Do they serve to further legitimize the interventions of the supposed “10,000 NGOs,”?

It is not only the writings we must write against, but also the narrative images that propel the “saving” of Haiti. Images may pull at our heart strings, and compel some sort of continued engagement, but perhaps one of the roles of this post (and perhaps this blog), is to ask for a moment to think, a moment to understand the way that other people are being spoken about and represented, and how historically these representations have occurred. If we commit to learning from the past, then we should realize that the these narratives and images of dehumanization coupled with salvation have many times before been a first step towards control and violence.


Haitians stand outside the Tribunal de Paix building in the town of Grand Boucan in May 2012. UN Photo/Victoria Hazou

The Two Faces of the UN

Scott Freeman, Visiting Scholar

Posted on March 20, 2013

“All those Haitians who suffered such abuses have a right to see justice is done.”

 -UN High Comissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

I’d like to post the two articles related to UN involvement in Haiti that came out a couple weeks ago. Both published on February 21, both regarding ‘justice’ to Haitians.

In one case, the UN has absolved itself of legal responsibility to the families and victims of cholera, a disease that MINUSTAH itself (the UN stabilization force in Haiti) introduced. Read the claim here. In the other, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) made a statement about, and in support of, bringing Jean Claude Duvalier to trial regarding crimes committed during his dictatorship. Read the statement here.

Subsequent articles (The Atlantic) have spoken out about the UN’s involvement in the introduction and spread of cholera. That an institution such as the UN would introduce such a disease and not hold itself accountable is inexcusable. Taken alone, this decision paints a stark picture of the UN’s presence in Haiti. However when paired with the second public statement, released on the same day, the picture becomes perhaps even more jarring. The UN has decided that not only will it not be held accountable for cholera victims, it will do so while attempting to be an international voice for human rights violations.

I agree with the Navi Pillay quote I began with. The trial of Duvalier is important for many reasons. However, the thin line drawn by the UN on human rights issues is becoming increasingly nefarious and self-serving. This line demarcates who can and who cannot commit human rights violations, and when those violations can occur. That line, even the existence of one, is frightening indeed.
Haitians stand outside the Tribunal de Paix building in the town of Grand Boucan in May 2012. UN Photo/Victoria Hazou