Interview with ‘Travesty in Haiti’ author, Dr. Tim Schwartz-Part 2

Haitian kids February 2010

Two Haitian boys outside Port-au-Prince, February 2010. Photo: Marty Duren

This is the second part of the interview with Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking author, Dr. Tim Schwartz. (Read the first part here.)

MD: Is there a solution to what seems to be the logistics issues that came to the fore after the earthquake?

Schwartz: Yes. And I am not the only one. There is a growing sentiment–as per Easterly and a less well know but equally astute guy named Owen Barder at the Center for Global Development–that we need accountability.

Just as every other sector of the business community, school, church, the government, the NGO sector needs transparency, accountability, and feedback.

That is not hard to implement and it would solve the problems of ineffective aid, cheating, embezzling, lying about the effectiveness of programs. Ultimately it would give way to the coordination of aid agencies, the deficiency of which was fantastically apparent in the miserable disorder that accompanied the earthquake relief.

I was unofficially working on this with Paul Farmer and the Special Envoy’s Office but it got canned in December. The explanation they gave me was that they had decided that it was the Haitian government’s responsibility to monitor the NGOs.

What I envisioned was a type of Standard and Poor’s of NGOs but with exceptional rigor. The fulcrum would be a small office with maybe six employees–young, hungry, idealistic and fit students of development. We would have an Internet site that listed all the NGOs in Haiti (no one knows how many are out there). On the website we would have the financial data, like Charity Navigator, but we would carry it further, as does the BBB’s charity evaluations. We would publish salaries and percentage of money spent on overhead and we would rate the organization on their disposition to provide us with data.

Then we would go out and actually verify this, rate them on the accuracy report on field programs and if whether or not they were doing what they say they are doing. Right there you would expose a lot of bogus organizations and by making that information public donors could avoid throwing their money away.

But we would take it even further.

We would provide a small but representative and rigorously obtained sample of the opinions of the recipients of the aid. No one ever does that. The NGOs are supposed to do it. It’s in all the charters and stipulations for aid packages so what they do is send some paid consultant out, or one of their own employees, and they write up a report. You can imagine how that goes. As William Easterly said, “If I allowed my students to assign their own grades most would not study very hard.” All this would go into a rating system, made public, on the website, and updated bi-annually. There would also be rating open to reviewers, like the reviews.

It all seems so simple and so logical. I am not saying anything that an 8th grade student taking his first business class wouldn’t think of.

Why don’t they do it? That’s a different question.

This system would also allow us to easily maintain a database of all the resources at the disposal of each NGO. Such a resource, indeed this accountability structure, could serve as a institution for coordination in the event of disaster. The single greatest problem with the earthquake was a total absence of coordination. It was absolutely mind boggling.

MD: What percentage of the orphanages in Haiti are being run legitimately, being that there are actual children without parents with outside donations going to their clothing, room or board and where the state of the children is bettered by living there?

Schwartz: In my honest opinion? This could get me in trouble.

I suspect none; but there are very good reasons for this. And since you asked, here is a rather lengthy excerpt from an unpublished article I just wrote:

There are simply not enough orphans–at least not enough to satisfy the aid agencies. There are those orphanage keepers who drive around before the scheduled arrival of overseas sponsors and round up street children to serve as temporary orphans (as a rule street children prefer to be free); but most orphanages provide children with access to education in exchange for fulfilling the role as “orphan” (I detail these finds in the book Travesty in Haiti).

For Haitians, it is not a big surprise that orphans are scarce. In a USAID funded report that I wrote at the time of the research mentioned above I explained why. First of all, Haitians have large families. The average Haitian in the region where I worked had 10 full and half brothers and sisters; 20 uncles and aunts (including parent’s half siblings); about 35 first cousins (reducing the average lifetime total by a factor of 4); a maximum of 12 living grandparents (4 grandparents and 8 great grandparents); and a possible 40 great uncles and aunts (the siblings and half siblings of his or her grandparents). In addition to these blood relatives, a Haitian child has two fictive mothers and two fictive fathers (godparents). Any one of these relatives may be disposed, even eager, to adopt the child, especially in lieu of the labor value of children, the second reason why true orphans are scarce.

Haitians–at least 65% of whom practice household livelihood strategies involving labor intensive agriculture, livestock and petty commodity production–place a high value on children for the labor they provide in the household survival strategies. This is nothing new to agricultural or pre-industrial societies. Children in early America were also valued for their labor. Pre-industrial subsistence strategies mean intense labor regimes, specifically fetching firewood and water, running errands, washing cloths and cooking. For example, just fetching water in the Northwest Department involves a 70 minute round-trip walk to the nearest spring. Children perform these tasks and in doing so free adults to pursue more gainful opportunities, such as marketing, agriculture, livestock rearing, migrant wage labor and, for women, employment as adult domestics for wealthy families in Port-au-Prince.

I captured this labor value of children in a statistically representative and random study I made of farmers’ (68 men and 68 women) opinions in rural Haiti. Common were statements such as,

If you don’t have children, dogs will eat you. If you have no children to fetch a little water and get some fire for you. If you hurt something or you are sick, you’re finished. (fifty-five-year-old father of seventeen)

You need children to help you work. It is children who save the household (thirty-two-year-old mother of five)

Children don’t tire. Children are animals. Children are never worn out. They do all the work. They go to the water. They do all the work. (forty-year-old mother of four)

I cannot live without children. . . . If I need one to go to the village, I send him. If I need one to go for wood, I send him. They can’t tell me no . . . . Not one of them can stand in front of me and say no. We pull together. (thirty-nine-year-old father of six)

The same trends have been documented by the few scholars who have studied Haitian urban livelihood strategies and child household labor contributions (Maynard-Tucker 1996). Children are so valuable in this respect that many of what the typical Westerner sees as impoverished Haitians are, in reality, people eagerly seeking to care for child relatives. A child is often sent to live with an elder family member to perform necessary household tasks. In exchange for a child’s services there is the expectation that the child’s guardian will pay for his or her education.

So why do they ‘give them away’ to strangers, as we keep seeing in the press? There is a generally accepted principal of social mobility in Haiti: If someone has an opportunity to better one’s conditions, education, or income, then others have a duty to allow them to do so. That’s on the Haitian side, and that’s the pivotal point of the struggle for control of Haiti’s children, the point on which aid agencies–all of them based in post industrial developed countries and dedicated/funded to protect children and defend the rights of children–find fertile ground.

In the competition between aid agencies and Haitian families the aid agencies must, if they want to get orphans–whether these orphans have parents or not–make what can be construed as a competitive bid: they offer education. And offer they do. The love and need most Haitians have for children is sometimes overcome with the desire to take advantage of educational opportunities provided by foreigners, aid agencies, and so-called orphanages; opportunities that even moderately well-to-do relatives often cannot match. This tendency is manifest in the recent arrest of ten missionaries where the children and parents explained that they thought their children were going to the neighboring Dominican Republic where they would get an education.

But the Haitians are emphatically not “giving them up”; rather they are giving them an opportunity–not to allow the parents to see the child again is, to the average Haitian, a criminal act. And it is here that we arrive at the issue of child slavery for [in] it is buried scarcity of orphans can be discovered the reason why aid seekers and humanitarian agencies, such as UNICEF, shifted focus from orphans to child slaves, a trend that, as will be seen, the press followed with gusto.

Child Slavery

The first rumblings of child slavery in Haiti came with the 1984 and 1990 Conferences on Child Domesticity held in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Participants at the conferences equated child domestic service with “slavery,” talked of beatings, sexual abuse and, in their zeal to please funding institutions and win support, presented it as epidemic. Lumping together every Haitian child between the ages of five and seventeen and not living with their parents in the category of child domestic servant, the experts came up with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 250,000, translating to 5 to 12 percent of all Haitian children in this age category (25% of the Haitian population is between the ages of 4 and 15 and 32% between the ages of 4 and 18; UNICEF 1993; Dorélien 1982; 1990; Clesca 1984).

Read Part 3 of the interview. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Tim Schwartz for his time and energy in participating in the interview.

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Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • Mike Parker

    Interesting read Marty. Especially after experiencing these “orphans” myself. When we were at the orphanage outside PAP I asked several kids where their mother and father was and several pointed to them right at the orphanage itself. The only true orphan I was aware of was the elevan year-old taken from the palace area. I think I asked about three or four children. Also, when we offered the medical assistance at the orphanage all of these adults showed up out of no where???

    • Marty Duren

      The same was true about the orphanage above the house where we stayed. There were as many parents as there were “orphans.”

      What seems to be the case is that orphanage in the Haitian context is somewhat different than what orphanage brings to the American mind which seems more along the lines of Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger and gruel.

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