You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 6: The Riddle of Haiti

The Riddle of Haiti

Why do aid projects in Haiti so often seem to fail? In this episode of Big World, Professor Scott Freeman joins us to discuss the colonial history of foreign intervention in the country [01:28] and urges us to work past the international aid community’s historical rhetoric to create new narratives for “the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.” He encourages us to consider the prescribed terms and conditions of aid initiatives, and he challenges how we should define “successes” and “failures” for ongoing aid projects [04:24].

We learn more about who’s controlling aid and how NGOs and elite individuals have designed policies without local input, including how Haitians were essentially excluded from planning meetings after the disastrous 2010 earthquake by virtue of the meetings being conducted in English rather than Haitian Creole [06:09]. Freeman explains how over-productive American markets can be the cause (rather than the solution) to Haiti’s economic precarity and how Haitian commodities can be priced out of consumption and change traditional diets [08:33].

Transport yourself into the shoes of Haitian farmers facing impossible decisions: If your only income comes from keeping your land as productive as possible, would you risk poverty to conserve it for the next generation [16:58]? What is Haiti’s most famous luxury export, and how does the industry actively suppress farmer involvement for financial gain [18:56]? And to add insult to injurious aid: as the US spends less on international aid and natural disasters increase in frequency, where does the future of aid leave Haiti in the time of climate change [22:41]?

We ask Freeman about the changes he would make to international development practices in our “Take Five” segment [12:42], and we learn more about the global economy, including how engaging with foreign policy can be more powerful than simply donating to a charity [14:50].

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service in American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. The island nation of Haiti has long been the recipient of international aid, receiving billions of dollars in foreign assistance, much of it from the United States, yet Haiti persists as one of the world's poorest countries, with the continuing identification as a fragile state. intractable poverty in the face of ongoing aid would seem to make Haiti a global development riddle.

0:36      KS: Today, we're talking about Haiti and the mystery of why aid dollars sometimes add up to less than the sum of their parts. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Scott Freeman. Scott is a professor in the School of International Service. He's an environmental anthropologist who works in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, looking closely at the bureaucracies of international aid projects. In Haiti, his research has covered the vetiver perfume industry and soil conservation reforestation efforts, both of which we'll discuss today. Scott, thanks for joining Big World.

1:05      Scott Freeman: Thanks for inviting me.

1:07      KS: So Scott, we're going to start our conversation looking at aid in Haiti writ large and then delve a bit into specific areas. Organizations and headlines often refer to Haiti as the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, but what do we need to know about the economic history of the country to understand the why and how of Haiti today?

1:28      SF: Right and I think part of that poorest county in the Western hemisphere narrative is that this narrative captures almost the entirety of the imagination that some people have of what Haiti is and I think it distracts from how we should think about the problem. So it makes us think of Haiti as this entity in and of itself, rather than thinking about Haiti as a place in which colonial powers, like the United States and France have really played a profound role in economic extraction and colonialism.

2:01      SF: Thinking about the current economic and political condition in Haiti, that's a really important question to ask, is what use has Haiti played for these other powers? That allows us then to think about the economic condition that Haiti's in and gets us away from thinking that this is simply because of some sort of internal strife and dynamic that is unique to Haiti.

2:28      KS: Right, right. We are going to talk a little bit about aid and I want to get back to what you were saying about those foreign powers, but in looking at aid specifically, there have been a number of high profile news stories about failed aid initiatives in Haiti, millions of missing dollars pledged to aid repair to controversy over financial transparency. There have been some controversies with high profile celebrity foundations, like the Clinton Foundation and Wyclef Jean's Yélé Haiti. Why do aid projects in Haiti seemingly often fail and is asking why aid projects fail even the right question to ask?

3:06      SF: Yeah, right, so there's been high profile failure of big projects, big-name donors and that sort of thing and that is a separate, yet related question to why for the past now 65 years, has ongoing aid in Haiti happened without a result? So there's two things that are going on. One is capturing the headlines and the Red Cross, of course, captured a big exposé and even congressional inquiry into its activities and at the same time, you have a lot of other aid activities that don't make headlines, yet of course, the benefits are questionable.

3:51      SF: On the one hand, with some of the assertions about the failures of large foreign interventions is that they have been serving foreign interests far more than they're concerned in serving Haitians. That is to say that aid may be employing foreign aid workers, rather than Haitian nationals, who don't understand the context, and furthermore, may be supporting certain foreign business interests as opposed to the interests of the everyday Haitian.

4:24      SF: So how is it that many... Well if you look at documentation, how is it that if you look at many aid projects that label themselves successful, don't actually have these sort of impacts on the ground. I think that a lot of that has to do with how aid projects are measured. The short-term measurement of success and looking for something visible and measurable in order to stamp a project as successful and as time goes on and projects are evaluated on those short-term frameworks, I think that you have this phenomenon where projects are deemed successful without providing substantive evidence on the ground.

5:06      KS: Basically they fulfill the terms of the grant, whatever those limited terms were, they did the deliverables, success.

5:11      SF: Exactly.

5:12      KS: But it didn't actually impact anybody's life in a positive way, long-term.

5:15      SF: Exactly and there's sort of a slow drip, right?

5:17      KS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

5:17      SF: There's a slow violence, as opposed to this headline-grabbing large violence of, "Wait a second, fund dollars weren't used accordingly." There's that sort of a slower creep of this type of project that is constantly going on in the background. I think that's also what we need to pay attention to.

5:33      KS: Like a bureaucratic breakdown, right?

5:37      SF: Exactly, yeah, I think so.

5:38      KS: Okay. So going back to your point about colonialism and a big part of the history in the whole Western hemisphere is colonialism. This is definitely true of Haiti, it was colonized by the Spanish and the French, it was occupied by the US. As you alluded to earlier, are there aspects of Haiti's colonial past that are still impacting current aid practices? Are there things to do with the colonial past, whether it's by France, or Spain, or the US, that are still impacted by having been a colonial, or an occupying power there?

6:09      SF: Totally, I think if you look at a lot of the dynamics of who controls decisions about aid, there's this mirror there and so actually some of the critiques of the earthquake response were that planning meetings right after the earthquake, that were between foreign institutions and patient government, were all conducted in English. So how were Haitian government officials going to participate in any way if the language was in a certain way, a colonial one, right?

6:38      KS: Right.

6:39      SF: The language of power was not the one that many Haitians are speaking and so I think that it's that decision-making power and the question is who ends up governing Haiti if aid institutions have a majority of the funds that are reaching Haitians' lives in the countryside, then their decisions, the decisions of aid workers, they have a greater impact in the everyday experience of governing and governance than the individuals who've been voted into office. So I think there's a really interesting and unfortunate way in which there is this governing from experts and from the aid industry, that supplants civic participation.

7:29      KS: It's so interesting that you use the phrase aid industry. I think we probably should get into that a little bit because that's interesting but first, for anybody who doesn't know, the language of Haiti is Haitian Creole, yes?

7:40      SF: Right, yes.

7:40      KS: So not English, it's a language that is more closely related to French, but is different from French.

7:46      SF: Right, right.

7:47      KS: Okay.

7:47      SF: Think the influence of French vocabulary on language structures brought from enslaved peoples who came over from Africa, yeah.

7:57      KS: Okay, interesting. All right, so Scott, let's get a little bit into talking about existing natural resources, as you are an environmentalist as well. What is commodity dumping? Tell us a little bit about that and how does it play out in Haiti and more importantly maybe, who does this practice harm?

8:19      SF: Right.

8:19      KS: So what is commodity dumping?

8:20      SF: Right and commodity dumping is a term of critique, right?

8:23      KS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

8:24      SF: You would not find this in a proposal for US foreign policy-

8:28      KS: That we're going to do commodity dumping?

8:28      SF: Right, exactly.

8:28      KS: Right, right, right, it's pejorative.

8:33      SF: We don't want to do these sorts of things. It's a way in which we think about the movement of something that might be considered even food aid and this for Haiti, particularly, is of question in terms of rice, and more recently peanuts. The idea is that subsidized foodstuff from the United States, surplus subsidized food from the United States, that needs to be disposed of or find some market somewhere, can't find a market in the United States because we've incentivized over-production. So then that amount of food needs to find a market somewhere else and so, using foreign policy, we find a space in which that commodity can be sold. And because it's subsidized for the foreign person in the United States, that commodity can be sold at...

9:24      KS: Very cheaply, okay.

9:25      SF: Yeah and so thinking about that in Haiti and for Haitians, the famous cases of rice, which in the 1990s, the tariff for Haitian rice went from 50%, the tariff that protected rice entering into Haiti, down to 3% and so that was at the behest of Bill Clinton, who has since apologized for this move, but it meant that US rice entered into Haiti, which has its own production, its own agricultural for both rice and other staple food crops. So that really affects the lives of Haiti farmers. So one of the impacts of the forced lowering of tariffs was the influx of foreign rice and if you talk to ... and this had really profound effects, effects that I still think are not well understood or talked about, which is that this changed the diet of Haitians. So the domestic rice industry did not completely crumble, there's still a rice industry in Haiti. It could be stronger, but what happened was the import of US rice actually changed what Haitians eat.

10:50      SF: So if you talk to someone who's in their 50s or their 60s about what they ate on a weekly basis, they ate a whole number of things. Tubers and bananas, plantains and yam and manioc and all this, and on Sunday they ate rice. Rice was a special dish on Sunday, on days of celebration, but it was not consumed every day. Now, rice is consumed every day. It is the staple of people's diets and so there is a really interesting way that this has remade in large part, Haitian diets simply because it has become a cheaper and a more readily available commodity. So when I go down to Haiti, I eat rice produced in the United States, because that's what's available.

11:41      KS: And that's another example of that colonial or occupying past, where our own interests are more important and being exerted over sovereign nation.

11:55      SF: Right, right but under a language of, "No we're doing good, we're doing aid, we're donating here." But the interests are actually really far more tied to domestic farmers.

12:14      KS: Scott Freeman, it's time in the podcast when we take five. We get to step back from the problems and challenges and daydream out loud. If you could right now, single-handedly institute five policies or practices that would change the world for the better, what would they be and specifically in your case, what are five things you would change about international development practices?

12:38      SF: All right.

12:41      KS: Remake the world, go for it.

12:42      SF: Right, yeah, feel very comfortable with that. I don't. So I think a couple of things that I would rethink are this form of the project and the aid project. This administrative form of the project, a financial and time-bound form, is the currency of the aid industry. NGOs apply to get projects, they report by project reports and donors want follow up on their projects. So this is not just a way of designing aid, it's a way of measuring aid and it's a way of NGOs getting funding and that has a large number of effects on what happens on the ground, one of which, as we discussed, is the measurements are not long-term, they're short-term, they're tied to accounting for donors' funding.

13:30      SF: So that's the second point, is that I think you have to change the accountability structures because what's happening is, in this world in which the project is the dominant form of aid, the accounting is up to donors' funds. So when we account for what aid does, we account for those donor dollars in order to appease the donors who provided funding and not necessarily to those who are receiving the benefits, supposedly the benefits of aid.

14:02      SF: I think the third is for the aid industry, and more broadly, all of us, to think about the impact of the global economy on poverty. So in many ways, historically it's often in some part the result of extractive economic practices that we have the conditions of poverty in general. So for example, the export of US commodities and pushing those on other countries, is a large part of the problem and not necessarily the solution. So I think we really need to take a step back and recognize that the global economy is not benefiting everyone equally, and look at what's going on in terms of creating poverty.

14:50      SF: I think the fourth would be to move citizens to engage more with US policy, foreign policy, rather than to simply be complacent about donating to charity. I'm not saying that people are complacent, or doing a good job in donating to charity, but what I'm pushing is that a number of the issues that I see in Haiti are caused because of US's foreign policy towards garment production in Haiti, towards food production in the United States as opposed to Haiti and that is the source of this poverty, which we then solve supposedly with the aid industry. So the wheels just keep spinning, rather than looking back to the cause of this. Engaging with US foreign policy and critiquing the way that these condition are brought, I think would be far more productive.

15:39      SF: So finally, is to constantly make space for social movements and activists abroad, rather than continually reify the experts from the United States, and the West more broadly.

15:52      KS: Right, thank you. So Scott, let's pull back a bit more broadly to look at impacts of the economy on the environment. What are some of the observable ways economic inequality impacts environmental degradation on the island?

16:15      SF: You know, one of the things that I'm most attuned to is the way that farmers work their land and if we think about the larger food market, so if we think about the fact that still a great deal of individuals in Haiti are looking to the land to produce as their source of capital. That this produces their income. Therefore, there's a real demand on that land, right? To produce something for a family.

16:42      KS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

16:42      SF: In a larger context, in which you're competing with subsidized food coming from the United States, but also being imported from the Dominican Republic, the amount that you can sell your food for is low, right?

16:58      KS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

16:58      SF: It's challenging to produce off of a small plot of land.

17:02      KS: A living wage, right.

17:03      SF: Right. So it really asks farmers to demand a lot from their land. So what I see is soil erosion and soil exhaustion as a result of these sorts of practices. Or at least, that high demand has a cost, right?

17:17      KS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

17:17      SF: So in the area in which I work, there is a lot of deforested area and it's mostly for grazing land and for agricultural land. There's a larger and a bigger narrative that Haiti has this deleterious forest destruction and while there has been forest destruction in Haiti, some of the statistics are a little more bombastic than they need to be. What we see in terms of environmental stress from farmers is trying to make a living in a really precarious economic environment.

17:58      KS: So it puts them in a situation where they have really no choice but to do harm to their land in order to try and wring as much out of it as they can?

18:04      SF: Right, overstress that land.

18:08      KS: So I want to get into one crop in particular, first, you've written about how the suppression of knowledge can accompany and facilitate the extraction of materials for global consumption and I know that you have a particular interest in one crop in particular, vetiver. Can you give us a short primer on vetiver, because I'm guessing that a lot of people have no idea what this is?

18:28      SF: Yeah.

18:28      KS: I didn't until I met you. What it is?

18:30      SF: Yeah, so it's this really wonderful-smelling essential oil. I think I've worked around it too long; I'm super excited about it.

18:44      KS: You didn't bring any, any here?

18:45      SF: Right, I didn't bring any, it's all in my office. My office smells great. It comes from the vetiver plant, so it's a grass, right?

18:55      KS: Right.

18:56      SF: It has really deep roots, and the roots grow vertically, so it goes really deep down and when you distill the vetiver roots, you get this essential oil, and this essential oil is really valuable to the perfume industry. It turns out that Haiti produces the most vetiver oil in the world and the highest quality. So Haiti is known as the place where, if you want vetiver oil, you go really to Haiti. So there was some research that I did looking at the environmental and economic impacts of the vetiver industry.

19:32      KS: So you hear that and you think, "Oh this is great. We have this really prized commodity. It grows in one place better than others. It goes into luxury items, like perfume. I'm sure they're making a lot of money off of this. This must be great for Haiti, how's it helping?"

19:50      SF: Yeah exactly, right? And there we are. A friend, Kiran Jayaram, and I have thought of this as this repeating series of ideas about savior commodities. That "Here it is! Here's the next one that will save Haiti... It's coffee, it's sugar, it's vetiver!" What I think is really notable about this crop is when I talked to vetiver farmers in 2011, so a number of years ago now, I came across this phenomena that a number of them told me that vetiver oil makes planes fly, which it d oes not make planes fly. So it raised the question, how is this possible that vetiver farmers, who are farming vetiver oil to sell to the oil industry and the perfume industry, why is it that they think this? Or how is that possible, right?

20:42      KS: Right, right.

20:43      SF: So ultimately it's a really hard question to answer but I think what it indicates about the industry is the closed doors and the extractive natures and all of these things are very heavily guarded, all of these ideas and I suppose secrets and even the costs that intermediaries are paying, is often unknown to farmers.

21:07      KS: Right, and there's no way that they could be kept in the dark that much unless it's in someone's economic bests interests for them to not know what they're doing. So who is benefiting from purposefully keeping these farmers in the dark? Who's benefiting?

21:21      SF: I think that the chemical makeups of essential oils are still largely not even in the reaches of the oil distillers, who often don't know the quality of oil that they're producing. So everybody almost coming through this perfume industry, seems that there's this interest in guarding the secrets and the recipes and these sorts of things.

21:42      KS: Oh my gosh. Scott, to wrap us up here, let's pull way back to look at a bigger picture. We know that climate change impacts will be felt most by those who already have the least, I think that's widely understood among environmentalists. We're also seeing the real economic costs in terms of relief and rebuilding, after damaging storms and fires in the US, as these costs just continue to escalate and governments, not just the US, many governments will be paying more to rebuild their own infrastructure after damaging natural events. So as the US spends less on international aid, because this is also happening in the current administration, and costs from a changing climate begin to accrue, I'm wondering two things. First of all, what does that do to the aid industry that you referenced earlier, of this whole industry of dispersing funds and the bureaucracy that sustains itself that way? And more importantly, where does this leave Haiti?

22:41      SF: The way in which changing climate has affecting Haiti is, or at least the farmers that I work with, is drought and hurricanes. So people's crops are being affected, and people's houses and their livelihoods are being affected because their productive capital, in terms of their land and their possessions, are swept away by hurricanes and their crops are decimated by increased droughts or weather events.

23:09      SF: So the response to those by, as you said, as I said, the aid industry, is rebuilding of houses, right?

23:17      KS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

23:18      SF: My concern there is that it is not a substantively different type of housing that is more robust and stands up to hurricanes and in terms of agriculture, Haitian farmers have always have more than one source of income. So what I think is on the tips of folks' tongues is disaster risk reduction and equipping people to be—the buzz term is resilient—in the face of all of these issues. The strategies that Haitian farmers have had to have for a very long time, are to already have those skills, to already be able to manage a precarious, I keep using this term again and again, a precariously perched economic situation.

24:08      SF: I suppose I will wait and see, but I am curious about the degree to which this is substantively different from what has been going on in Haiti, that I think there have been so many remakes of the face of aid in Haiti that have yet continued the similar power dynamics and policies just in a slightly different terminology, just in a slightly different focus, that I will wait and see but I am concerned, as always about the way in which it may just be business as usual.

24:50      KS: Okay. Scott Freeman, thank you for joining Big World and discussing Haiti. There's no easy answers here but it was really informative discussion, it's been a pleasure to speak with you.

24:58      SF: Thanks very much for having me, it was great.

25:02      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our theme music is It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Scott Freeman,
professor at SIS

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