Schuller’s book is primarily set between 2003 and 2005, around the time when a coup d’état forced the country into a state of instability and upheaval. Through painstaking, diary-like documentation, Schuller argues that the flawed system of international development and humanitarian aid he observed in Haiti led to failed relief efforts following the devastating earthquake. Though donations poured into nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) serving Haiti, Haitians died from lack of access to food and clean water, and conditions remain grim to this day.
An assistant professor of African-American studies and anthropology at York College, City University of New York, Schuller argues that one of the biggest problems is the system of aid going indirectly to places like Haiti through NGOs that often do not understand the needs of the locals, or even speak their language. He uses the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as a primary example of a large funding body that, in his view, prioritizes foreign policy goals over local needs.
Schuller’s research zooms in on two women’s NGOs in Haiti, both focused on HIV/AIDS prevention, to describe the imbalance of power within the international aid system, where those giving orders are far-removed from the aid recipients–what he terms “trickle-down imperialism.”
Fanm Tèt Ansanm (translated from Creole as “women united”) received its funding from mostly private, European donors and had high levels of autonomy and participation with local community members. Sove Lavi (“saving lives”) received only public development aid, including USAID funds, and is described as being totally reliant on its donors.
While Schuller identifies flaws within Fanm Tèt Ansanm, he treats Sove Lavi as a symbol of international aid gone wrong. He primarily blames the NGOs’s main funders, which mandated Sove Lavi stress abstinence as the main means of HIV-prevention–ignoring the reality that Haitian women are often forced into sex to make ends meet–and to focus on instant-results-based management over farther-reaching aid.
Schuller writes about Sove Lavi’s seemingly ineffective projects, one that included going to provinces to teach community groups and schools about HIV/AIDS prevention. At one event, Sove Lavi lectures community trainers on the “ABC” method of prevention (abstinence, being faithful, or condom use) followed by a post-evaluation test on HIV prevention and transmission, wherein all participants score above 95 percent on the test–a measure of success for the NGO. After the NGO leaders drive off in their SUV, Schuller lingers to ask the group what method of HIV prevention they practice. “My friend, we would very much like to practice HIV prevention,” he is told by one member. “But they never give us condoms.”
Though unapologetically critical of America’s role in the international aid system–with its roots in post-Cold War politics–Schuller offers a good deal of nuance in his arguments, rather than straight finger-pointing. The compelling narratives within are, at times, overpowered by very academic, detailed writing, but it’s that level of detail that will make this work invaluable in anthropologic circles.
“NGOs cannot be compelled to work better, or work in underserved areas, because they are first and foremost private, voluntary initiatives,” Schuller writes. “This is why any NGO can point to individual success post-earthquake, while close to 40 percent of camps still lacked water a year following the quake. Compounding this, NGOs working in Haiti are funded and usually headquartered abroad. ‘Haitian’ NGOs like Sove Lavi and Fanm Tèt Ansanm may have Haitian decision-making structures, but foreign funders still wield powerful influence, recalling the old saying that ‘the one who pays the piper calls the tune.’”
To improve the current aid system, Schuller encourages more autonomy and local participation among NGOs. He also argues that USAID should be divorced from the State Department so it can develop policies not based on foreign-policy goals. Noting that “[c]urrently 93 percent of USAID funds return to the United States,” he asks that aid be untied:
With due respect to the musician-activist Bono and the ONE Campaign, our support should come with a clear set of proposed changes to the way our aid is delivered. If we don’t, we just continue our killing with kindness.