In many senses the lack of progress following Haiti’s earthquake centers on housing. Assessing the damage, a team evaluated 382,256 housing units in Port-au-Prince. Of these, 205,539 were tagged “green,” ready for human habitation, 99,043 “yellow,” requiring significant repair, and 77,674 “red,” which were so damaged so as to require demolition. Anthropologist Timothy Schwartz led a team to write a report for USAID, who funded the housing evaluation.
The report contained some important warnings; despite its technical successes and easy- to-understand coding system, the program didn’t noticeably alter people’s decisions to move back into homes.
Most alarmingly, 73,846 of 115,384 “red” houses had been re-inhabited by January 2011.
In addition to these carefully researched findings, Schwartz included others that were not a part of his mandate from USAID, about the official estimates of the death toll and the “legitimate” Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). According to his own blog on Slate, USAID denied publication of the report because it attempted to distance itself from these controversial claims. But Schwartz persevered, leaking the draft report to the press. Finally, Agence France Presse (AFP) writer Emily Troutman published a story about it on May 27.
This story triggered a heated debate on a subject that for most Haitians was only marginally relevant and even disrespectful. Blogs and public listservs such as the 8,000-member “Corbett List” registered scores of email commentaries that degraded into ad hominem attacks. Like many other peoples displaced by the holocaust of the middle passage, Haitian culture grants a central role to its ances- tors whose spirits return home, to ginen, Africa. To many, digging up the question of the numbers of dead disrespected the memory of loved ones and their ancestors. The Haitian government’s official death toll from January 12 was 230,000, which was repeated by the NGOs and the media. As the first anniversary loomed, without citing additional research or proof, Haitian Prime Minister Max Bel- lerive announced that the earthquake killed 316,000 people. As Schwartz blogged, this was a deliberate inflation aimed at loosening up more funds for the relief and reconstruction effort. Dozens of news stories, including in large-circulation Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek, and Time, repeated this finger-wagging, more editorializing than news reporting.
While basing Schwartz’ critique of the Haitian government on its lack of transparency in its re- search methods, the leaked report was similarly opaque. For its part, USAID distanced itself from the most controversial claims, citing inconsisten- cies and irregularities within Schwartz’ research methods. Only two stories that made it to Google’s daily news alerts reported this critique, despite the dozens that used the leaked report to lodge a critique against the Haitian government, many drawing on familiar narratives of Haitian incompetence, adding to Haiti’s unending bad press. The damage was already done. True, Schwartz was acting as an individual, not USAID, but as a humanitarian actor nonetheless. As a mirror, Schwartz’ crusade was aimed at a clear, if unflattering, gaze back at the humanitarian effort, particularly NGOs who he argued were complicit in the inflation of the death toll for self-interested ends.
As a study of the impact of the housing evaluation, it was an important intervention. But the report that was leaked to the press – and uncritically repeated – did not explain the methodology for Schwartz’s uncommissioned campaign: for example, what sampling criteria were used, both in terms of neighborhoods and individuals, how this sample represents larger trends, etc. There seems to have been no recognition of the possibility that entire structures leveled to rubble would have been impossible to number, whose family members were all either dead or living in the IDP camps. The report cited precise numbers, not rounded, to estimate both the numbers of dead and the “legitimate” IDPs, despite the conventions of rounding based on sig- nificant digits within statistical research, declaring there to be from 46,190 to 84,961 dead, giving an average of 65,575, a little more than a fifth of the government’s estimate. Part of the study’s argument rests on contrasting its precision with the Haitian government’s lack of precision. Conclusions were reached about IDP camps without researchers visiting the camps. The report estimated 258,085 “cur- rent” IDPs (range of 141,158 to 375,031 compared to the Internation Organization of Migration’s (IOM) estimate of 680,000), with 42,608 “legitimate” IDPs.
Researchers with the Small Arms Survey conducted an independent study, much more method- ologically grounded, of the death toll, lower than the Haitian government’s estimate but significantly higher than Schwartz’ – 158,000. This estimate first appeared in a Los Angeles Times editorial on July 12, eighteen months after the earthquake and a month and a half following the leak of Schwartz’ report.
The debate was primarily focused on the death toll, leaving the other unsubstantiated claims about the “legitimate” IDPs and incendiary statements such as people only living in the camps for the free access to services unaddressed, to say the least about the study’s most troubling finding of a majority of “red” houses being reoccupied. The total silence, the attention deflected away from this discussion of the “illegitimate” IDPs, was an insidious outcome of this mirror. With the public debate focusing on what to most Haitian people I know consider a red herring – with nothing to be done about the dead, no one ultimately responsible for their deaths – the inflammatory and controversial allegations about living IDPs – whose rights were actively being challenged by a range of actors – became tacitly accepted by the lack of scrutiny.
Unfortunately, these allegations were not true. The IOM reports just under 600,000 IDPs as late as November, six months after the Schwartz report. The agency contracted by the IOM to survey 15,446 IDPs about their intentions found that 94 percent of IDPs wanted to leave the camps, according to a report publish in August. Corroborating this information, I led a team of eight State University of Haiti and five City University of New York students in a five-week study of eight IDP camps. Our survey of 800 randomly-selected families yielded a similar result: 92 percent of IDPs wanted to leave as of July, when the survey was conducted. Our survey also showed that 79.5 percent of residents were renters before the earthquake, so even if their houses were tagged “green” they could not return because of skyrocketing rental costs. In addition, as of November only 5,000 damaged housing units rebuilt or rehabbed. In short: IDPs can’t leave because they have nowhere to go.
In addition to not being able to leave, the “free services” that ostensibly were the magnet to the camps – notably water and toilet services – were being shut off as NGO contracts ended. As of October 2011, only 6 percent of IDP camps had water services, and in November water trucking services had to stop per government decree. To the oft-repeated quote – amplified and justified by the Schwartz report – of people suddenly appearing in unused tents whenever a distribution was made, my eight research teams spent five weeks in the same camp and noticed a constant level of comings and goings, economic activity, and social life. In other words, they were all “real” camps. To the concern about the free aid being a magnet pulling tens of thousands of people from the provinces, the survey showed only 3.5 percent came since 2010, with the mean year of migration to Port-au-Prince being 1993, which follows the general pattern of Haiti’s rural exodus. Simply put, all but 3.5 percent are “real” IDPs.
Whether or not this deflection was intentional, certainly by a maverick like Schwartz who has criticized NGOs, it was useful to many actors. Landowners and government officials such as Delmas Mayor Wilson Jeudy who actively sought to close IDP camps, found justification. The day following the AFP’s story, Jeudy again destroyed an camp on public land in his municipality, his second violent act within two weeks, citing a similar refrain of the IDPs not being “real” victims but criminals. Jeudy employed armed irregular forces to rip people’s tents and destroy their belongings.
This unchallenged discourse of “illegitimate” IDPs was also useful to humanitarian agencies increasingly on the defensive following billions in aid spent and little evident progress. If the num- ber of IDPs were artificially inflated and most not “legitimate,” humanitarian agencies have fewer obligations. USAID was in a bipartisan U.S. House of Representatives spotlight: H.R. 1016, on May 10, 2011, calling the agency to account for the billions and apparent lack of progress.
Whether or not Schwartz acting as an individual had intended these outcomes, the AFP article deflected attention and criticism against both the Haitian government and USAID and offered ideological support for reactionary positions, justifying forced evictions and lack of progress for IDPs. When the smoke and mirrors are set side, the facts, carefully researched and established, are clear. Unfortunately, the IDP camps are not going away anytime soon, despite everyone’s wishes to the contrary – especially from those who have nowhere else to go. Rather than blame the victims, topping our holiday wish list should be an effective strategy to rebuild housing.
Mark Schuller is Assistant Professor African American Studies and Anthropology Department of Social Sciences at York College, City University of New York.