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Looking at Haiti from Haiti

Two years after the earthquake, a new book aims to tell the story we’ve missed

Mark Schuller, center, is a New York anthropologist who also teaches at University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince.
Mark Schuller, center, is a New York anthropologist who also teaches at University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince.-

Two years ago, in one of the worst natural disasters recorded in the western hemisphere, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook the island nation of Haiti, leveling the capital of Port-au-Prince, taking more than a quarter-million lives, and leaving 1.5 million homeless.

The wall-to-wall coverage of destruction and death riveted the world community and triggered a massive response, with billions in pledged foreign aid and private donations. But as relief turned to stalled recovery, Mark Schuller, a New York anthropologist who also teaches at University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince, realized he was seeing a pattern he had seen before: The voices shaping how the world saw Haiti were almost exclusively Americans and other foreign outsiders.


The narrative in those accounts was familiar: one of inept governments, helpless victims, and an aid community doing all it can to bypass the first in order to save the second. In response, Schuller and Latin America specialist Pablo Morales gathered 59 contributors who were either Haitian or knew the country deeply and assembled a new, wide-ranging anthology, “Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake.”

Published last week, the book features analysis from leading scholars, journalists, and activists. There’s a strong New England contingent: Boston Haitian Reporter editor Manolia Charlotin, Wesleyan sociologist Alex Dupuy, BU School of Medicine professor Marshall Fleurant, Brown University Haitian language specialist Patrick Sylvain, and Partners in Health physicians Louise Ivers and David Walton.

Through these eyes, a much more unsettling narrative emerges — one of an aid community dominated by unwieldy, out-of-touch nongovernmental organizations, also called NGOs, and past foreign interventions that set the stage for the quake’s epic death toll. It’s a narrative, the book argues, that is critical to understanding a country where some 500,000 people remain homeless.

“This is the first collective attempt to open up a dialogue that has been for the most part shut out,” said Schuller, who teaches at the City University of New York’s York College. “We need to listen carefully to Haitian people and the articulation of their needs, and I hope this book will be the first step in that conversation.”


Schuller spoke to Ideas via Skype from Port-au-Prince.

IDEAS: What distinguishes “Tectonic Shifts” from other books about the 2010 earthquake?

SCHULLER: Of the 46 chapters in this book, half of the chapters were written by Haitians in Haiti and translated into English. There are a couple serious books that have come out, like [Partners in Health founder and UN Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti] Paul Farmer’s book. But so far, very few of the voices that have been heard have been from Haitians living in Haiti before, during, and after the earthquake.

IDEAS: How would you characterize the conversation about Haiti post-earthquake?

SCHULLER: If you look at the news coverage of Haiti, it’s almost singularly negative about Haitian people, and singularly positive about foreign people and their intentions. That does an extreme disservice to Haitian people, who are analyzing the situation and working to change the situation.

IDEAS: The first chapter, by University of Haiti anthropologist Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, examines Hurricane Jeanne in 2004, which killed roughly 3,000 people in Haiti and left 300,000 homeless. Why open a book about the earthquake with a different natural disaster?

SCHULLER: To show that the problems that occurred after the earthquake are not new. And they are structural. They’re not about good people doing bad things, or bad people doing good things. They’re about structures that are broken.


IDEAS: Describe some of those broken structures.

SCHULLER: Looking at Haiti before the earthquake, you had an ineffective system in place of NGOs, a very top-heavy, top-down structure. With the earthquake, you essentially had billions of dollars being sent into that very broken, top-heavy structure, which was made far worse by this massive infusion of many more NGOs. So you have NGOs who can’t communicate internally, because the decision-makers of these NGOs, who are making decisions on a UN military base and don’t speak Haitian Creole, can’t communicate with Haitian staff in the field who know what the problems are, who know what’s working and what’s not working. You have competition between NGOs, and competition and suspicion between NGOs and the government.

IDEAS: The widespread perception, though, is that the Haitian government is corrupt.

SCHULLER: Well, it’s a very binary kind of thinking. You have to have good on one side and bad on the other side. In a binary system, you don’t have room for a third actor, and that’s the problem. So, people correctly see the legacy of Duvalierism, the legacy of Haiti’s military elite and mercantile elite, and they think, OK, Haitians must be corrupt. When they see the Haitian government doing things they shouldn’t be doing, they don’t think to question what the UN or the US or the World Bank might be doing to reproduce that.


IDEAS: Are there positive signs of what the government can achieve?

SCHULLER: Let’s look at the cholera outbreak following the earthquake . . . .If we look at just the prevention efforts, inside the IDP [Internally Displaced People] camps, water and sanitation services became critical to cholera prevention. The only institution that had any public accountability to people in the camps to access those services was the Haitian government. But the NGOs were the ones with all the funding, the billions of dollars to meet the needs of the displaced. Where the NGOs acted as camp management agencies, they did a good job of getting services to the field — but by August 2010, 40 percent of camps did not have water. You had one toilet being shared by 273 people, where the humanitarian standard is one toilet for every 20 people.

Interestingly, where progress was made was in [the poor neighborhood of] Cité Soleil. Why is that significant? Because the Haitian government, both the national government and the city halls, were empowered to play a coordinating role working with the UN and NGOs. Rather than meet at the UN base, they met in city halls with the local government and representatives, and they made 100 percent coverage in Cité Soleil a priority, and they succeeded.

IDEAS: What do you say to accusations that the camps are now home to so-called fakes, people who are not actually homeless?

SCHULLER: Some 600,000 people left Port-au-Prince after the earthquake because they were afraid of the concrete. They were afraid of the aftershocks, of the insecurity. So if someone leaves and then walks into a camp in April 2010, does that make them a fake victim? I think that’s extremely cynical, and puts the blame on the victim and deflects the attention away from the failures.


IDEAS: If a person texted $10 to help Haiti, what happened to his or her money?

SCHULLER: I wish I could tell you, and that’s part of the problem — lack of accountability. There are some groups, like Partners in Health, that did an excellent job. They are a good case study: They were already on the ground, with great relationships with Haitians on the ground, and they were working with, not around, the Haitian government.

To the people who texted to Wyclef [Jean, founder of Yele Haiti] or the Red Cross or Oxfam, I’m sorry but I have no idea. But I’d say there are questions one should really ask when donating to an NGO.

Francie Latour is an associate editor at Wellesley magazine and a former Globe reporter.