By Roger Annis, March 13, 2015, from an e-mail to correspondents
The book ‘Travesty in Haiti’ is a highly recommended book. It is the author Tim Schwartz’ observations and analysis of the aid industry in Haiti based on his many years of research and writing in the country. It was published in 2008, two years before the 2010 earthquake.
The author found himself at the center of a storm of controversy in 2011 over a study commissioned by USAID which he was hired to direct. The study was never published by USAID. It was commissioned to study the effectiveness of rubble removal and other post-2010 earthquake projects funded by USAID. The study found that the rubble removal programs were, indeed, effective.
The controversy stemmed from an offshoot of the research team’s work. Because they conducted detailed neighbourhood surveys throughout the earthquake zone in Port au Prince, they were in a position to report in the final report that the estimate of deaths from the earthquake had been greatly exaggerated by all the governments and aid agencies involved. “Official” estimates ranged from 200,000 people to over 300,000 people who died. The Building Assessment and Rubble Removal (BARR) study placed the number at 40,000 to 70,000. The reason its authors were able to quantify the figure was that part of their work in examining the effectiveness of rubble removal programs was to survey residents of affected neighbourhoods. Among the questions the survey asked was, “Who lived here before the earthquake, and where are they now?” The BARR Study was the only scientific survey of earthquake deaths conducted in Haiti. You can read the 2011 BARR study here, and you can read some of the controversy it provoked here.
Unfortunately, Tim Schwartz, who resides in Haiti and was there at the time of the 2010 earthquake, did not write a book on the quake and the aid industry response. In my opinion, a comprehensive book on the subject has yet to be written. Those books on the subject which are listed in the Canada Haiti Action Network list of recommended books are each partial in their own way. The most-publicized of the post-earthquake books, Jonathan Katz’ ‘The Big Truck That Went By’, is far from the best, principally because he studiously avoids any analysis of the imperialist occupation of Haiti dating back to the coup of 2004 and the many years of interference and intervention prior to that. It was this long history of intervention that contributed mightily to making Haiti so vulnerable to the earthquake.
The best books are Beverly Bell’s ‘Fault Lines’ and Mark Schuler’s ‘Tectonic Shifts’. Laurent Dubois’ ‘Haiti: The Aftershocks of History’ is very good for historically situating Haiti’s perilous condition at the time of the earthquake. Unfortunately he passes over the impact of the harsh, nearly 30-year imperialist intervention in Haiti that has destabilized and weakened the country ever since the overthrow of the Duvalier tyranny in 1986.
Dubois is the author of the masterful history of Haiti’s 1791-1804 anti-slavery rebellion and independence struggle, ‘Avengers of the New World’.
Several recommended essays on the social and political context of the earthquake disaster are co-authored by me:
Haiti’s humanitarian crisis: Rooted in history of military coups and occupations, May 2011
and, Haiti’s promised rebuilding unrealized as Haitians challenge authoritarian rule, January 2015