Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti (book review)

I had just started reading Mark Schuller’s Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti when hurricane Matthew hit the island.
It was a sad and timely reminder to critically analyze and engage with humanitarian efforts on the Caribbean island.

I reviewed Jonathan Katz’ book The Big Truck That Went By as well as J’s Disastrous Passion installment of aid worker fiction on Aidnography before which both provide different views of the billion dollar aid effort that had reached Haiti after the earthquake of 2010.
And as the American election campaign noise about a particular foundation’s work on the island grew louder, I was looking for more substantial and nuanced insights into the impact of a lot of aid money in a small place.
Mark Schuller’s ethnography certainly delivers a lot of these nuanced, critical and academically grounded insights; his book is also a reminder of the value of ‘aidnography’ and how important long-term, on the ground anthropological field work is to elucidate the things we, aid workers, academics, journalists, do and how we do them.

Humanitarian Aftershocks’ strength, as with any traditional anthropological project, lies in documenting and presenting seemingly mundane practices and their real impact on people’s lives beyond journalistic headlines of anniversary coverage of
16 billion dollar aid efforts’. And by doing that, the book left me with a profound sense of ‘Emperor-is-still-naked syndrome’: None of the issues Schuller highlights are ‘new’ and we have been discussing culturally insensitive, expat-driven NGO work that takes ‘place’ in an increasingly mediatized environment for quite some time. The lack of local ownership, let alone leadership, in humanitarian work is certainly not a new topic and the NGOization of the sector that has often very little to do with ‘civil society’ these days has also been part of many an analysis.

Overarching good intentions and poor implementation is the issue how neoliberal policies always seem to reduce humanitarian aid to a Band Aid, too little or too much and mostly too late, which has been highlighted with pretty much every humanitarian crisis since the beginning of our modern understanding of ‘development’.

So why read the book (or continue reading my review after this long-ish introduction)?

First and foremost, Mark Schuller’s book is an excellent application of anthropological theory, engaged writing and self-reflective deliberation on a topic that deserves more than just another long-read in a weekend edition of a news website. And even though he cannot answer the question of how to ‘fix’ key aspects of the humanitarian system, the voices of people, real people, he (re)presents after conducting more than 150 interviews in 8 displaced-persons camps should be an encouragement for humanitarians to try harder and push the system further to what it can achieve once aftershocks have subsided.

Creating camps, committees and a new political economy of aid

The key narrative of the book focuses on ‘sociocultural changes observable’ in the context of post-earthquake aid that hit an already struggling society:

This book demonstrates how the groundswell of everyday solidarity (…) was replaced by a top-down, NGOized , depoliticized, international system of humanitarian aid. One key element of this disruption in solidarity was the fissioning of Haitian households, resulting from a reward structure regarding food aid (p.12).
In his first chapter, Haiti’s unnatural disaster, reminds readers of core historical developments that, sometimes literally created the ground for the catastrophe in 2010 and should always be taken into consideration before pointing fingers solely at international aid efforts:
The living conditions in the shantytowns and particularly the low-cost housing, both direct outcomes of global and national neoliberal policies, rendered Port-au-Prince and many popular neighborhoods extremely vulnerable to disasters (p.43).
The second chapter, Constructing IDPs, is already a very good example of Schuller’s approach to present his research: the reader learns a lot about the protagonists of his narrative and the broader historical setting opens up to voices of human beings who were quickly categorized along the lines of the humanitarian aid bureaucracy:
As these stories demonstrate, IDPs lived a precarious existence. At any moment they can be woken up in the middle of the night by rain, by rats, to be moved out, their tents burned, robbed, their bodies and children raped, to have their picture taken to continue receiving aid, or by helicopters trying with infrared camera to count how many warm bodies are still surviving under the heat of tarps in the Caribbean sun (p.74).
The Gender aftershocks
The next three chapters focus on the Gender of Aid and they do not paint a rosy picture after decades of discussing gender and development on all levels of the aid industry.

Foreign agencies’ hierarchical relationships and single-issue feminist agenda, complicated by the “check-the-box” phenomenon, failed to account for the multiple issues, identities, relationships, and inequalities Haitian women of the poor majority face. (…) agencies’ policies of granting food aid exclusively to women increased the opportunity for a range of other problems, including transactional sex and violence. (…) how did the camp committees become the hierarchical, male-dominated, entities wherein some abused their power over women? (p.121).
From an academic standpoint these issues around ‘professionalization’, standardization and the governmentality of aid that counts people as one or the other have been well-documented, including in my own research.
As we are now halfway through the book the question arose as to what is new about these frameworks and experiences and whether or not they are simply inherent to the way large-scale humanitarian aid has to be delivered quickly to thousands of families with thousands of individual stories.
But the subsequent part of the book is partly an answer to that question as it delves deeper into the ‘Republic of NGOs’ and the ‘Fotokopis’ of organizations-carbon photocopies of each other hanging on the wall, doing nothing in the local understandings of aid efforts.

For four bars of soap you lost your life

They make us sing and then they play films. They take our pictures, they pass our image around in the cameras with all the adults clapping hands. I hear people singing: “Burn trash ohhh burn trash!” A bunch of nonsense!
Last week they gave us a card. While still stuck in this camp we took this card because we have nothing else. We woke up in the morning, resigning ourselves. We said that whatever they give us, we will organize ourselves to sell part of it to feed our children. When we got in line, they gave us four bars of soap.
They said it was IOM but I didn’t see. I can’t say it was IOM, but it gave us the card for the soap and we got gassed while in line. IOM gave us the card but we never received anything from them.
Well, I can say the Red Cross came several times, IOM cam several times. But what id is possible? They bring us soap to wash with, they give us Aquatabs to treat water. The people saw that it’s too small, so they throw rocks, bottles, and then they leave, that’s how it always is.
We were standing in the hot sun, after this the blan (in this context MINUSTAH, UN troops) gassed us, shot rubber bullets. (…) Pregnant women got shot. Someone died from a bullet.
For four bars of soap you lost your live (p.154).
Josselyn’s experiences as a mother of seven children and camp inhabitant opens up chapter 6, the Republic of NGOs’.
This chapter highlights in an exemplary way the quality of Schuller’s ethnography, documenting voices from his interviews and introducing classic anthropological concepts at the same time. The chapter is about Josselyn-but also about ‘the gift’, performances of camp inhabitants, resistance and compliance including subversion and the cultural non-interactions between a global governance UN, the NGO ‘machine’ and all-night waiting lines in IDP camps.

On top of all these challenges Schuller presents organizational ethnographic insights-local NGO managers being sidelined when younger, often less experienced expat staff arrive; global branding efforts that go hand in hand with a lack of information for local residents and their lack of knowledge what ‘NGOs’ really are. But those bubbles…would Jessica’s, an expat NGO worker, comment be different from the Jessicas in 1995, 2005 or 2015?!

And it is very sad, I mean you can look through any report from (her institution) and you know we are always making the same point. Understand f%&king context. Is it that difficult? (p.218).
“I’ve got an undergraduate degree from Oxford, a master’s degree from Columbia, and I don’t understand how to do this”
What has the aid industry really (un)learned – and why is it so difficult to deliver humanitarian aid in a humanitarian way?
With all the knowledge, skills and tools we have we are left with the sour taste of the proverbial ‘imperfect offer’-imperfect because humanitarian aid cannot fix years or decades of issues that accumulated outside and often contrary to any notion of ‘sustainable development’.
But the strength of Humanitarian Aftershocks is that Mark Schuller highlights challenges that can and should be addressed, from localization of aid management to a further push to make humanitarian ethics and practices count in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way.
In a world where ‘normalization of foreign control’ (p.230) is so embedded and ‘humanitarian gentrification’ (p.233) always finds new avenues to manifest itself in a capitalist framework we will need more aidnography before the aftershocks translate to incremental changes for the better.


Schuller, Mark: Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti. ISBN 978-0-8135-7423-3, 312pp, USD27.95, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016.

I asked Rutgers University Press for a review copy of the book which they provided earlier this year. 

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