In the aftermath of the earthquake, all affected buildings had been structurally evaluated through a USAID-funded program and were given a color-coded ranking. Green meant the building was safe, yellow meant it needed repairs, and red meant it was uninhabitable. By January 29, the team had collected data that gave them an average number of deaths for these three categories of buildings. They then extrapolated those numbers for the earthquake-affected population of 3 million. Based on those calculations, the report estimated 46,190 to 84,961 people had died in the quake.
The LTL Strategies team was led by anthropologist and statistician Timothy Schwartz, who received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 2000. Schwartz has lived in Haiti on and off for nearly twenty years, and his work in the country seems to often end up slaughtering a sacred cow or two. His doctoral dissertation, “Children are the Wealth of the Poor,” challenged the popular accepted notion of child slavery in Haiti, which Schwartz believes has been grossly misunderstood and exaggerated by NGOs who profit from the issue, as well as journalists seeking sensational stories.
Schwartz’s 2008 book, Travesty in Haiti: A True Account of Christian Missions, Orphanages, Fraud, Food Aid and Drug Trafficking, criticizes aid agencies such as Catholic Relief Services and World Vision, arguing that international aid to Haiti is rife with fraud, greed and political agendas. When it was published, Paul Farmer, the respected medical anthropologist and doctor, said the book “knocks it out of the park.”
According to Schwartz, the methodology and findings of the report met with approval inside USAID. “First time I went in, I went with general info. I said, ‘By the way, here’s what we got for death count and here’s what we have for people who came home.’” USAID sent the report to Washington in February 2011 for deliberation. When Schwartz was called back in, the report had been vetted and approved. The last time he walked out of USAID’s offices, Schwartz told me, everyone was happy. The final report was submitted to USAID on March 13. Once there, however, it lingered for months.
Schwartz said he did not leak the report, but he did share it with friends and other professionals during this period. (Some have accused USAID of leaking it in an attempt to discredit the Haitian government.) AFP got hold of it and published its findings on May 27, at which point USAID in Washington distanced itself from the study’s methodology citing “inconsistencies.” Meanwhile, USAID Haiti’s mission director, Carleene Dei, issued a statement that said: “Any comment on the death toll of the tragic earthquake of January 2010 that affected so many is beyond the scope of the commission and purely reflects the views of the author.”
“It was logical, and the methodology was good, but the big thing was the politics,” said Schwartz. “They said, ‘We’re going to shut it down because the report wasn’t representative.” In his opinion, USAID knew that the numbers in the report would cause a quagmire for both the American and Haitian governments as well as the international development community. If there were fewer deaths, less rubble, and fewer people in the camps, as the report claimed, what was happening to the billions of dollars being spent in the country? Why was the recovery and rebuilding effort so marred by gross inefficiency and corruption?
Schwartz arrived at our meeting in Port au Prince on his motorcycle, full of enthusiasm to talk about the report and the issues it raises. I couldn’t help but think he had the fatigued look of a lone crusader. Schwartz has been called a “liar” and a “despicable vampire” online by people who believe the report hurt Haitians. “People will die because of this criminal’s report,” wrote Michael Collins on his popular website, Haitian-Truth.org. Schwartz’s reputation as a virulent aid-hater in a country where foreign assistance makes up at least half the national budget and there are hundreds of aid groups operating has only solidified since May.
Schwartz expressed frustration that the issues the report raises have been seemingly buried in order to serve what he sees as the interests of the development community in Haiti. And the media? “The press is perhaps even more guilty than the aid groups,” he said.