‘Travesty in Haiti,’ book review

When I returned from Haiti on February 8, the first thing I started doing was looking for books that could help make sense of some of the things I had seen that obviously predated the earthquake: the extreme poverty, regularly being asked for money or things, and nightmarish logistical situations that seemingly prevented needs from being met. What I found was the books on the subject are few, but devastating in their critiques.

I decided to purchase Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking, by Timothy T. Schwartz, Ph. D., an anthropologist who graduated from the University of Florida and spent a decade in Haiti doing doctoral research followed by work with non-government organizations (NGOs) dedicated to food aid. The primary NGOs mentioned through the narrative are CARE, PISANO, Agro Acton Aleman (AAA) and the French Initiative Development, whose goal through the 1980s and 1990s was to address the extreme poverty among the peasant farmers living across the country outside Port-au-Prince.

When the book arrived, I was immediately cautious because of it’s appearance. It had all the markings of a self-published book: blurry pictures, fuzzy text, lack of publishing information and, most telling of all, a final page that read, “Made in the USA, Lexington, KY, 09 February 2010,” which happened to be the day I ordered the book. So it was “print-on-demand” I realized. That in itself meant nothing since many books (including mine) are now published this way, but there was no ISBN page, publisher information, thank you’s, or credits.

What I did find online was a long summary/review in Anthropology Review Database by Dr. Robert Lawless of Wichita State University which gave the books high marks. I found another reference to the book in the Journal of International and Global Studies, in another piece Dr. Lawless’, this time reviewing Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Lawless also revealed in the former review that Dr. Schwartz tried for four years with the assistance of an agent to find a publisher that would take the necessary risks to put such a book on the market. Finding none he decided to self publish. That information gave me the confidence to read with an open mind and let the book defend itself.

In short, Travesty in Haiti is a combination of narrative, anecdotal evidence, investigative reporting and mystery. Using his own experiences and access to reams of NGO research surveys and evaluations as well as scholarly journals and basic information, Schwartz demonstrates that international food aid organizations like CARE have not merely harmed the economy of Haiti rather than helping it, but that the United States government was intentional in gutting the economic profitability of the peasant farmer economy by flooding the market with American tax payer-subsidized food. Further, most if not all of the aid organizations with a presence in Haiti, at least the ones with whom Schwartz interacted, partially funded their own existence with food they sold on the Haitian market! In other words, heavily subsidized food provided to international aid organizations was sold in the Haitian market competing with the very farmers the food was supposed to help. Haitians, purchasing the cheaper internationally supplied rice and beans, were, in reality, helping pay for office space in Boston and Bohn. As Schwartz writes (p. 107, 108):

CARE had become involved in what was a very deliberate undermining of the Haitian peasant economy, the cornerstone of a plan that the World Bank and USAID had designed.

[...]

The promotion of overseas sales of U.S. corn, wheat, cotton and rice was high on the congressional agenda. From 1986 to 2000 government subsidies for these products was 38% per year. There was also the EU, including France and Germany, which were also aggressive promoters of their own farm products. The EU subsidized the same grain products mentioned above at an even greater rate than the U.S., 48%.

These policies despite the fact that until the 1980’s “Haiti was almost entirely self-sufficient in rice production.”

Additionally, Schwartz chronicles the corruption that was rife throughout the Haitian environment from “Christian” orphanages where aid was received for children who had parents who lived nearby, to orphanages that claimed many more children that actually lived on the premises, to reimbursements made for expenses never claimed. In one particularly devastating section, he chronicles the operation of The School of Jesus Christ of America, run by the Reverend Richard and Madame Richard Baxter. This particular school, featuring top notch food, full air conditioning, functional electricity and plumbing had no orphans, though money was raised in the states for educating orphans. Rather, housewives, insurance salesmen and gas station attendants in the Midwestern US sent money each month to support the children of gas station owners, the town mayor, wealthy business people and the like who attended the school. The old aid adage is, “The poor in rich countries supporting the rich in poor countries.” Haiti appears to be the case in point.

After the turmoil in the Haitian economy and following the U.S. supported ouster of president Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haitians found themselves with a military junta running the country. This opened the door for Columbian drug cartels to flood the country with cocaine. Schwartz explains (p. 225),

Haiti for years had been a trans-shipment point for Columbian cocaine. But with a repressive military that strongly controlled trade into and out of Haiti it had been a monopoly reserved for a few of the powerful and politically connected…Then with the coup d’etat and ouster of Jean Bertand Aristide by the CIA trained junta, cocaine became rampant.

[...]

As a radical left-wing priest [Aristide] was interfering with [U.S.] programs to make Haiti hospitable to foreign capital investment, to agro-industry and Trade Free Zones. U.S. politicians, urged on by lobbyists and Haitian elites whose interests were threatened, believed that the military junta was going to facilitate the emergence of a regime more amenable to the U.S. political and economic agenda. But the junta, reportedly already engaged in the cocaine trade, had other ideas.

As a result of the earthquake Americans who could not have found Haiti on a world map given 20 tries with all but the Caribbean blotted out have suddenly been moved by pictures of collapsed buildings, wounded children and mourning parents. Millions of dollars have poured into the coffers of churches, aid organizations and God knows where else. This is one writer who has also been moved and been on the ground there, yet I would encourage every single person who has any interest in Haiti, especially in helping the people, to read and digest this book. It will sicken you, frustrate you, infuriate you and move you. To ignore its story is to miss the reality of why aid has not worked in Haiti and why it is not likely to do so for the long term this time around.

You can buy Travesty in Haiti at Amazon.com through the link below. You pay the same low price and support this site through your purchase.



If you liked this post, you might enjoy:
My relief trip to Haiti with pictures, Part 1
Medical missions in Haiti, Part 2
The Haitian government is right to hold 10 Americans for kidnapping
A collection of photos from Haiti

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