Over the course of the next several days my interview with Dr. Schwartz will be published on martyduren.com. Following this series I hope to further explore the international aid situation, with an emphasis on how it applies to Haiti, though other global examples will be examined.
My hope is that this teeming mass of Americans who have become concerned about the plight of Haiti will educate themselves about why and how Haiti was devastated well before the January 12 earthquake and what might be done to render true assistance in the aftermath.
MD: Did any changes take place in food aid after your book came out?
Schwartz: Well, no. Except that Meghann Curtis, who works for Hilary Clinton and Cheryl Mills, wrote me and said the State Department was rewriting U.S. policy with hopes it would not resemble the American Plan that was described in Travesty. So in that sense it had an impact. Not because it caused them to change the policy, but it apparently helped them understand the problems they face.
The book is just now catching on, but I am no longer among a small minority objecting to food aid. Since I wrote Travesty a growing number of agencies, even NGOs who were involved in food distribution, have come out against it. Oxfam is currently leading the charge.
I think this is great but I don’t want to give them too much credit because everyone–that is everyone who is thinking and in the field–has always known that food aid damages the agricultural markets in underdeveloped countries. I mean it is an incredible paradox that agronomists whose first lesson in agro-industrialism was about buying up surpluses were part of dumping food on the agricultural economies they were supposed to be building. They aren’t stupid. They knew. Everyone was always outraged. But quietly.
As I detail in Travesty, CARE consultants and even the heads of the food programs were at times outspoken about their opposition to the food. There were heated arguments. Seminars. But the bottom line was that the people on the ground are not making the decisions. For CARE, it is the headquarters in Atlanta that makes the decisions and their decision was to take the equivalent of 15 million US aid dollars–in food–and do what USAID told them to do.
And it should be clear that it is not USAID who is making the decision either. They are taking their orders from congress.
And congress is taking its orders from special interests.
As for CARE, to their credit, the conscience of someone inside must have won out, or at least caused them to stumble. In 2007, USAID was negotiating a new contract with them. I recently learned the details because a new friend was involved on behalf of USAID. The contract was for five years of distributing food aid. CARE had been trying to get away for food aid for over a decade and obviously they were increasingly nervous about it. This is the era when Oxfam and other groups were making a lot of noise. There were/are pages on the Internet dedicated to opposing food aid as well as protests in Geneva. But, as my friend says, “they had a dilemma because food aid was a cash cow for CARE.” So this time, in 2007, they tried to compromise.
CARE said they would sign a contract for 2 years, but USAID likes five year contracts. The food aid delivery is a bidding process, and so USAID folks whispered to the ears of those at the World Food Program, which put in a “competitive bid,”–I use the quotes because there are only a handful of NGOs who are allowed to bid on USAID projects–and CARE was/is out the food distribution process in Haiti .
MD: Other books have been written chronicling aid problems in places like Somalia. Is the failure of international aid endemic?
Schwartz: Yes, I think so. Although I only have firsthand experience in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
I once had a professor, Robert Lawless, who was a really profound thinker; he would recount the calamities of aid throughout the world telling us about these massive projects that backfired. He was a big fan of indigenous knowledge and really respected people.
In the years I was working in Haiti I somehow forgot much of that. But since writing the book and corresponding with Lawless again–after I came out of the field–I realized that he had already prepared me for what I found.
Also, I have heard similar stories from people who have worked for NGOs in Africa and other areas of Latin America. And, I read Michael Marner’s The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. I read it after I published Travesty and I was glad; the similarities were so great that it would have made me feel like I copied him. He wrote a terrific book and the portrait he painted of aid in Somalia is chilling, but I am not surprised. When I read the book I felt like I was right there with him, like I had already seen it. And I had. It was the same neglect, waste, economic disruption, self-deception, rationalization, and greed as we see in Haiti, but with even more cataclysmic consequences.
MD: In your experience, what has been the single most frustrating thing about US policy toward Haiti?
Schwartz: It is not about developing Haiti. It is about developing US business interests; which is fine. Haitians don’t vote for US politicians. But the problem–and this is the point that I hope I make most forcefully in the book–concerns the organizations that claim they are working for the poorest of poor; it’s simply not true. They are working for the US, French, German, and Canadian special interests. And they all know this.
These organizations are staffed by an almost uniformly good bunch of people. People who set out to help, who wanted to change the world, alleviate poverty, but they got caught up in the industry of aid and those dreams get swept away and replaced by hope for a salary raise, a pension plan, a promotion, better working conditions. This is where the biggest frustration comes in for me.
Back in the US there is a whole different set of good people who are sending in donations and voting for these organizations, cheering them on. They are doing this because they think the money is going to help the poor and hungry and illiterate overseas. They aren’t donating money so that it can pay some other American or German a middle to upper class salary and pension plan or so the director of CARE can send his children to a $25,000 per year private school. They are giving that money to help the poor in other countries…and it just ain’t happening.
These other good people, the NGO employees who are the recipients of most the aid, seem powerless to change things and then, as time and their careers progress, less and less disposed to try to change it.
Yeah, that’s frustrating. But US policy, ideally, should focus on helping other countries develop. I can understand why it doesn’t since politics is politics and corporate interests tend to be first.
My beef is with the civil/NGO sector. They are the ones we finance to defend and help the poor. They need to be held accountable. They need to do what they say they are going to do.
Read Part 2 of this interview.