Review of Travesty in Haiti by Timothy T. Schwartz

Ever since the 2010 Haitian earthquake, my church has become increasingly interested in missions to Haiti, and I have personally gone on two separate one-week trips there. So far, my overall impression of the efforts to rebuild Haiti has been positive. At the same time, I have certainly heard about, and sometimes witnessed firsthand, ways in which aid to Haiti has been wasted or, even worse, has harmed the country. Naturally, I have been eager to ensure that our church does not make the same mistakes that have tripped up others in the past. So when I first discovered Timothy Schwartz’s book Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, food aid, fraud and drug trafficking, I was immediately interested. I expected that Schwartz would have a few horror stories to tell and some useful advice to give.

I was in for a surprise: Schwartz far exceeded my expectations in the horror-story department. Though I am rather cynical by nature and am not easily shocked, some of Schwartz’s tales made my hair stand on end. In his chapter on orphanages (which would more accurately be called “children’s homes” since most of the children have parents), he recounts how a large number of orphanages do not, in fact, use donated funds to help needy children. Sometimes, the children do not even exist; the numbers are inflated in order to bring in more money. If the children do exist, sometimes they are quite well off and do not need the money. Other times, the children are needy, but do not receive proper care, because the money is pocketed by the individuals who run the orphanage.

Orphanages are not the only organizations suffering from this problem. Later in the book, Schwartz quotes a Department of Health official, Jean-Luc L’homme: “The doctors, or rather ‘we,’ are the biggest crooks in the country.” Elsewhere, Schwartz describes a school that he calls (pseudonymously, it seems) the “School of Jesus Christ of America,” which he initially was very impressed by, until he later discovered that its students were largely children of the rich Haitian elite and not the poor children advertised on the school’s website—not to mention the fact that the pastor who founded the school routinely had sex with Haitian girls behind his wife’s back.

Schwartz knows what he is talking about. The early chapters of the book describe his early experiences in Haiti. A naïve young student pursuing a graduate degree in anthropology, Schwartz went to Haiti in the early 1990’s on a research grant to study poverty. He quickly found himself in over his head. Single and lonely, unprepared for the discomforts and diseases that accompany life in an impoverished hamlet in Jean Makout County, and disrespected by the people he was trying to help, Schwartz was miserable. Nevertheless, he persisted with his research, and in the course of doing so, discovered through firsthand experience a lot of things that he had not originally set out to study. A sizable portion of the book is devoted to a scathing critique of food aid. In a short review, it is not possible to do justice to this large topic, but Schwartz has painstakingly documented how many large organizations such as USAID and CARE have gotten locked into a pattern of flooding Haiti with food that it does not need, wreaking havoc with the local agricultural economy. Though the problem is now widely recognized, it has become so institutionalized that reform is extremely difficult.

It is not only outside forces that can be blamed for Haiti’s problems. Like any society, Haiti has its share of class conflict. In his chapter on “Medical Treatments,” Schwartz quotes another researcher, Catherine Maternowska, who recorded a visit that a 24-year-old Haitian woman Yvonne paid to a Haitian doctor. At one point, they began to argue over how many packets of pills Yvonne took on her previous visit.

Y: I took two packets in January.

D: But if you took two packets—I’ll tell you a little thing. If you took two packets in January, you should have come in early March. So where do you fall now? On your head or what?

Y: I haven’t fallen. It seems like you didn’t mark it because you gave me two packets.

D: [Throwing the chart at her]: Where do you see that? Where do you see that?

When this convoluted and deprecating interchange is over and Yvonne has left, the doctor turns to Maternowska, the researcher, and, referring to the mentality of slaves in Haiti two hundred years ago, says, “Their mentality hasn’t changed. It’s the same thing with this woman. She’s so stupid that she says she took two packets of pills but she didn’t. Oh! It’s all the same, they’re still stupid. They still lie and they’re still slaves! That woman, she can’t read, she’s nothing.”

Maternowska subsequently checked the records to see how many packets of pills the doctor had really prescribed. Yvonne was right, he had prescribed two packets.

Later in the book, Schwartz reports a conversation with an 11-year-old girl from a wealthy home. The girl shows Schwartz a parasitic fern on a tree, and then asks, “Do you know what par-a-sit-ic means?” Schwartz replies, “Tell me.” “Well, it is like the poor here in Haiti. They live off the rich. They suck on you until you have nothing left, until you are finished.”

Perhaps the most startling chapter in the book comes near the end. Somehow, a caravan of SUVs carrying a large payload of crack cocaine finds itself waylaid, driving through an unfamiliar Haitian village. The village peasants, recognizing the commercial value of the cocaine, succeed in seizing one of the vehicles, and re-sell the cocaine on the open market. According to Schwartz, this single economic windfall may have done more to better the lives of the poor people in that village than all the millions of dollars’ worth of aid poured into it over the years.

There is no question that anyone interested in helping Haiti must read this book. Fortunately for the reader, Schwartz writes well, and despite the depressing message of the book, it is an entertaining read. The dry research data is placed mostly in appendices, while the main body of the book is full of fascinating anecdotes. Schwartz does not hesitate to discuss his own personal life and his own failings, increasing the authenticity of an already highly authentic book.

The question that most interests me after reading this book is, in light of all the failures of the current system, what ought to be done next? Here is where I think Schwartz is at his weakest. The final appendix of the book suggests that the most important thing is to create an independent and impartial ranking and evaluating agency. In other words, Schwartz feels that the system of NGOs in Haiti lacks accountability, and he wants to establish an agency that will provide that accountability. While I agree that accountability is important, I am skeptical that setting up an agency will accomplish much. As Schwartz himself knows, this approach has been tried before and has failed. It takes an enormous amount of work to gather the kind of information Schwartz wants just from one NGO, let alone the hundreds of NGOs with a presence in Haiti. Who will pay for all that work? Perhaps even more importantly, what power would Schwartz’s ideal agency have to punish an NGO that it decides is doing a poor job? Without such power, “accountability” is an empty word.

In my view, ultimately it has to be the donors that hold the NGOs accountable. Donors are the ones with the power to punish an NGO by withdrawing funds, and donors are the ones who wll have the foot the bill for rigorous evaluations. Of course, donors are often not well informed about the challenges faced by NGOs, or about what kinds of demands are or are not reasonable to place on them. Furthermore, many donors donate just to feel good about themselves, and do not really want to hear that if they want to do good and not just feel good, then they must put in some effort. Educating donors is therefore, in my mind, a more promising approach than setting up Yet Another Watchdog Agency. Happily, Schwartz’s book does a stellar job of doing just that.

Posted May 2012

Back to Christian Stuff