The Finger of Blame for Haiti’s Environmental Degradation

The Haiti/Dominican Republic border. Photo:

By Meghan Pierce, Undergraduate Research Assistant

I visited the Library of Congress last Tuesday to listen to a lecture by Dr. Jean-Francois Mouhot, a post-doctoral research fellow based at Georgetown, who is currently conducting a three-year research project on the Environmental History of Saint-Domingue / Haiti (1492-today).

Dr. Mouhot began his talk by displaying a picture of the Haitian-Dominican boarder, brought to prominence by Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth (see above). The photograph reveals sparse, brown soil on Haiti’s side of the border, and flourishing tropical forest on the other. Dr. Mouhot indicated that with this image, Gore, like many others, depicts Haiti as a “cautionary tale” of failed environmental policy.

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The Invisible Walls of Aid

By Scott Freeman, Visiting Scholar

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.

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Haiti Moves a Step Closer toward Eradicating Elephantiasis

Boys at the L'Ecole Les Freres Clement elementary school in Jacmel, Haiti, line up to take deworming pills that protect against elephantiasis.

Boys at the L’Ecole Les Freres Clement elementary school in Jacmel, Haiti, line up to take deworming pills that protect against elephantiasis. Source: NPR Global Health

Reposted from NPR Global Health

By Jason Beaubien

Haiti has finally carried out a nationwide campaign to get rid of the parasitic worms that cause elephantiasis.

Haiti has waged other campaigns against the condition, characterized by severe disfiguration of the legs and arms. But until now, it has never managed to adequately reach residents of the chaotic capital Port-au-Prince.

The latest effort by the Haitian Ministry of Health now puts the country on track to wipe out elephantiasis within the next four years, a study published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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Dr. Paul Farmer: Communities Should Lead Problem-Solving in Haiti

Democracy NOW! recently hosted Dr. Paul Farmer to discuss his work in Rwanda, Haiti and his latest book, To Repair the World: Paul Farmer Speaks to the Next Generation. Farmer decided to compile a collection of commencement addresses he has delivered to graduating college students over the past decade, through which he encourages them to face global challenges with a commitment to social justice and solidarity with the world’s poor.

As Democracy NOW! describes his appearance, Farmer discussed “why he thinks a community-based health approach can help fix the U.S. healthcare system, how Rwanda’s model has drastically improved the lives of its citizens, and how to tackle the massive health problems in post-earthquake Haiti.”

Watch the video here.

The Present State of Haitian Fertility and the International Response

Photo: Johns Hopkins Public Health

By Meghan Pierce, Undergraduate Research Assistant

The right of the individual to decide how many children to have and when to have them has consistently been the guiding principle in international reproductive health standards, according to the World Health Organization.  Since 2010, Haiti’s rising annual birth rate has been increasingly referred to as a “fertility crisis” by international population demographers.

Haiti’s population is expected to reach 15.7 million by 2050, targeting the need for a reproductive health program to decrease the total fertility rate, currently 3.9 children per woman. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, an influx of international aid arrived to Haiti, with specific funds allocated for family planning initiatives, prioritized because of the ballooning population and dwindling natural resources. However, like many aid programs in Haiti, the funds have been poorly allocated and inefficiently managed. Since 2010, Haiti has been experiencing a “baby boom” in urban areas like Port-au-Prince, due in part to the destruction of infrastructure that once included clinics with contraceptive supplies and counseling. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the Haitian fertility rate has tripled since the disaster.

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Images and “Saving”

By Scott FreemanVisiting Scholar

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.

UNDP’s Questionable Claims of Progress

By Scott Freeman, Visiting Scholar

Heraldo Muñoz, the Chilean Assistant Secretary-General and Assistant Administrator Director of the Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, UNDP, recently published an article in Foreign Policy regarding the ‘real’ recovery of Haiti. It was seemingly a response to recent books on the topic of reconstruction and development (for example, here) and New York Times pieces (here and here). In it, he argues that the critics are wrong, that Haitians are thriving, and that ‘development’ is flourishing.

I’ve been pleased as of late to see that headlines are critically examining, and not forgetting, the unfolding events regarding the aid sector in Haiti. Yet I am concerned by the article by Dr. Muñoz as it relates to the work of this blog: to think more critically about aid in Haiti. To cite that “among Haitians, the sense of progress is unmistakable” seems quite a statement in the face of much writing to the contrary. I’d like to draw attention in particular to the sources he cites.

Gallup poll is cited with conviction, yet the results seem confusing at best. The poll found more Haitians thriving after the earthquake, and also found that in 2010, the very year of the earthquake, fewer Haitians were suffering than in previous years. While ‘suffering’ has supposedly decreased, the poll also notes that the numbers who are struggling has risen steadily. As a social scientist working on the island of Hispaniola (home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti), I have found the types of questions used by the Gallup poll (based on a sliding ladder scale of self-evaluation) incredibly problematic to translate cross culturally. These types of questions generate ample confusion and minimally accurate results. In effect, the results of the poll may represent more about how the poll was carried out than about the perceptions and opinions of Haitians themselves. The Gallup website itself responsibly introduces this doubt into its data: “In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls” (Gallup).

This brings me to a discussion of the glorification of project ‘evaluation’. While a longer treatment of ‘evaluation’ is necessary (and will be attempted in the future in this blog space), a couple of key points are raised by this sort of publication and promotion. First, there seems to be a divorce between the evaluations/reports that Muñoz cites and the writings and research of Mark Schuller, Jonathan Katz,  and many other scholars and reporters. Second, a key difference is that while authors critical of the results of aid (and perhaps the larger development apparatus in general) base their writings off of firsthand accounts in Haiti, Muñoz uses his own UNDP projects and polls to make his statements.

My third concern, and perhaps the most disconcerting, is that this article seems to be an account not of how Haitians are faring, but rather, the ‘successes’ of UNDP projects. In a country that has largely become defined by an endless string of aid projects, turning to project evaluations is an almost ubiquitous phenomenon. Yet there is a very distinct difference between the success of a project and the well-being of individuals. A citation of numbers served by a particular UNDP initiative does not indicate the success of development in Haiti.

Most Haitians I spoke with while conducting fieldwork in 2012 felt that international aid had done little but to provide jobs for foreigners. The phrase yo ap manje kob (they eat up money) came up again and again when discussing NGOs and development institutions.

I fear for the types of decisions that are made when high level aid administrators cultivate an ‘informed opinion’ by simply examining organizationally produced reports and questionable quantitative measures. Perhaps these perspectives would be broadened by more direct conversations with Haitians themselves.

Haitian Recovery? Source: Foreign Policy

Haitian Recovery? Source: Foreign Policy