AAA President’s Statement on Haiti

11 thoughts on “AAA President’s Statement on Haiti”

  1. In the next few weeks, every medium of communication we use will be bursting with declarations about Haiti, and many or most will probably be ill informed.

    My first thought was not to add to this blizzard of hurried thinking. One cannot impede or improve that blizzard. We anthropologists have little of what is called clout” in public affairs. We might be most helpful right now by using our few important channels to people whose voices *are* heard, to stress the need for getting anthropologists into the picture as soon as possible, both to collect data on what is happening and to advise about * how* reconstruction work can best be related to *Haitian* society.

    Beyond that, though, I think there is need to recall that nations have beginnings, and then national histories, and the history of each is unique. I know how obvious that is. But the penchant among journalists and political scientists for creating phony categories such as “kleptocracies,” “developing nations,” and “ failed states,” and then using such spurious categories to obstruct serious talk, in this case about *Haiti,* paralyzes our need to uncover the weight of *local* history.

    The central historical fact about Haiti is that the people there freed themselves from slavery at a moment when every colonial power from Brazil to the U.S. was a slaveholding nation – and that includes the nearby Caribbean colonies of France, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Denmark and Spain.

    Haiti has never been forgiven for its revolution, *because the slaves freed themselves*. Having done so, they were kept from building the national institutions (“infrastructure”) that every state needs, by indemnities, political and religious ostracism, the subsequent growth of a deeply divided class structure, and of course “misrule.”

    Without grasping these fundamentals, no one can address usefully Haiti’s needs, beyond the dreadfully urgent and immediate horrors.

    Sid Mintz

    Please see the full text of this article at:

  2. While circumstances differ to Iraq, the scale of disaster makes me think of antiquities and museums. I wonder how Haiti’s patrimony has fared these weeks and whether the outside agencies as well as remnants of domestic agencies are securing these treasures.

  3. I want to thank the AAA President Virginia Dominguez for her leadership in drawing attention to how anthropologists can appropriately respond to the Haiti earthquake disaster. As someone conducting what is now a 25-year study of economic and cultural change in one Haitian valley on the southern peninsula, Fond-des-Blancs, about 60 miles west-southwest of Port-au-Prince, I would like to orient our members, especially those in the classroom, on the issues on Haitian poverty and responses to the earthquake.

    Reframing the question why is Haiti so poor is of particular importance. We might better ask why are there virtually no functioning social institutions and no reliable infrastructure in Haiti? For example, the pre-disaster national highway along the southern peninsula showed no significant improvements since 1985 despite there being numerous projects at improving Haiti’s highways and bridges including a major U.S. AID food-for-work initiative in the mid-1990’s. There always seems to be a road or bridge project by this agency or that country with no long-term improvements. Road repairs are simply never maintained and they quickly deteriorate. The Government of Haiti has never, or never been allowed to, develop an organization capacity for maintain roads. The lack of institutional commitment and organizational structure holds true for schools and health care facilities as well. In rural Haiti, nearly all education and health care needs are delivered by expatriate non-governmental organizations. The cultural implications of expatriates delivering core developmental and medical needs are profound. Rural Haiti is one of the least developed areas in the Western hemisphere — paved roads, electric grids and public water systems are nonexistent outside of provincial towns like Cap Haitian or Les Cayes. The Haitian central government bestows virtually no funding to rural areas, and provides no public services except for tax collection and judicial facilities – both being notoriously arbitrary and capricious.

    An enlightening rhetorical response to why Haiti is so poor is why is 99% of Haiti so poor? We must not lose sight that Haiti has a small-scale very wealthy, very well schooled, very political astute elite caste. One cannot understand the Haitian situation without understanding Haitian elite’s very close ties with the U.S. Embassy. No one from any political stance can reasonably deny the U.S. role in the anti-Aristide coups. The fact that the Government of Haiti and the Haitian elite have been in absentia since the quake attests to their inability for civic engagement with the people of Haiti. The fact that in the days following the earthquake the U.S. Department of State confirmed signing two Memoranda of Understanding with Haiti to control its air space, to off-load all aid, and to give authority for U.S. medical personnel to operate on Haitian citizens attests to Haiti’s unofficial protectorate status vis-à-vis the U.S. The most important question may be, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot might ask, why has the Haitian state historically acted against the Haitian nation? As events unfold let us be vigilant to document if Haiti will be rebuilt for the Haitian state or for the Haitian nation.

  4. Another challenge is the representation of Haiti as a “state of pathology” whose culture is responsible for its ills. The recent David Brooks editorial (12/15 New York Times) replicates some of the worst offenses of logic and fails to take into consideration how humanitarian and development aid may have the unintended consequences of exacerbating the conditions on the ground and deepening Haiti’s dependence on foreign assistance. From 1996 until 2000 I tracked the unfolding of postconflict transition assistance in Haiti, as well as the expansion of humanitarian and development aid apparatus in Haiti. Some of the greatest challenges I witnessed arose from the cultures of governmental and nongovernmental assistance institutions involved in the reconstruction effort. It may not be politic to critique the aid apparatus at this time, but unless greater attention is paid to how these emergency relief efforts will transform into reconstruction and “nation building” efforts over time, it is likely that such efforts will worsen what Haitians call insecurity (ensekirite).

  5. In addition to Partners in Health, a very easy way to donate money for the immediate relief effort is to send a quick text message on a cell phone to: 90999 and write “Haiti” in the subject line. $10 will be donated (I think charged to your cell phone account).

  6. Practicing anthropologists already engaged in disaster relief work in Haiti. As soon as the news broke, I contacted Adam Koons, (Ph.D. American U.), who is a senior disaster relief specialist and was an NGO representative in Haiti for years. He is now head of relief for IRD, a relief PVO. He responded from Miami airport, while he was waiting for a flight to the DR to drive to Haiti and lead IRD’s relief efforts. This is the time when AAA should rely on its applied (practicing) members. I’m sure Adam is not the only anthropologist/relief expert in relief engaged on the ground in Haiti. We don’t need to go outside the profession.

  7. Images of Haitian suffering are being flashed world wide. Two themes predominate in the coverage: natural disaster and the poverty of Haiti, which is mapped as a given and almost natural condition of Haitian life. Even as people around the world reach out to help, they take in a sense of impoverished black people who can only survive because of the kindness of richer strangers.

    Anthropologists need to speak out to point out the structural violence, past and present that means that an earthquake takes a much greater toll of lives than it might elsewhere. Since its rebellion against slavery and French colonialism European countries and the US have been extracting wealth from Haiti in the form of debt payments, resources, and cheap labor. Any effort on the part of Haitians to change these relations of exploitation has led to political and military interventions in Haiti. This is the context that has left Haiti with no infrastructure, roads, heavy earth moving equipment, or capital. The people squatting on the unstable hills of Port-au-Prince came to the capital to look for a livelihood when Haitian agriculture and handicrafts were drowned by the importation of cheap goods. The environmental degradation on the hills of Hait and the seas around Haiti are also a product of people trying to survive in a terrain in which the world “financial community” has extracted its millions from destructive development projects and debt repayments. This is the back story behind the earth quake the the Haitian diaspor that anthropologists need to tell.

    This is not to impune the wonderful outpouring of empathy. The ability of people around the world to recognize common humanity that knows no borders
    We need to speak to that desire for a world without suffering and work with people around the world to make clear that while we can’t stop earthquakes, we can stand up to exploitatin and oppression.

  8. Barbara Miller has compiled an outstanding list of Haiti information resources on her blog site:
    This would be a good place for those anthropologists who do not have much prior knowledge of Haiti to look for alternative perspectives to media pundits’ blame games.

  9. After any disaster, the information technology systems necessary for locating people and allocating scarce resources are a critical function in the relief effort. Anthropologists – both on-site and remotely – can assist IT workers with bidirectional translation of the local population’s mental maps and the programmers’ data models. For example, the kinship networks coded into the IT system are often based upon the norms of developed countries and may not reflect the victims’ actual family structures and obligations.

    A task force is now implementing a disaster management software system called Sahana in Haiti. Anthropologists with knowledge of Haitian culture or expertise in software engineering are welcome to contact the Sahana team and volunteer their services.

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