Ashmore Consulting

Farewell, Fred Voodoo

A Review of Farewell, Fred Voodoo farewell fred voodoo

The salvation fantasies of the crisis caravan continue…but true solutions remain reality based and local.

Although I eagerly devoured Amy Wilentz’s new book Farewell, Fred Voodoo, it sometimes seemed antithetical.  One chapter espoused a certain tenet and then just a few chapters later she stated just the opposite.

For example, much of the book is spent detailing the “miraculous” work of Dr. Megan Coffee, who flew to Haiti after the earthquake and practices medicine on a volunteer basis with a TB ward in Port au Prince. Yet towards the end of the book Wilentz admits that some of the best private hospitals in Haiti went bankrupt because they were put out of business by the free health care that became available as American doctors flooded the country after the earthquake and volunteered their free medical services.  Is this a matter of good intentions that did not consider the local impact or does it underscore the weakness of the Government of Haiti (GOH) in providing health care?

It did remind me when subsidized American rice flooded the market and put Haitian rice farmers out of business. Although the flooding of medical help was in response to an emergency, the importation of cheap rice proceeded in the face of irrefutable evidence that it was displacing Haitian rice farmers and eroding national production. Former President Bill Clinton has since apologized for forcing Haiti to drop tariffs on cheap, imported rice and admitted it was a mistake – a badly construed policy that seriously damaged Haiti’s ability to be self-sufficient. Perhaps well-intentioned but without consideration of the impact on local Haitians.

The book felt like a celebrity pop culture magazine at times. Much of the book focused on Sean Penn, the Clintons and other celebrities with obligatory references to voodoo and zombies, presumably to sell books. Wilentz even says the “mélange of celebrity, tragedy and charity are what sells developing-world stories to the entertainment consumers of our day.” She admits that these celebrities were given access to privileges and funding that local Haitian organizations with more stellar track records could not get. Yes, Penn’s organization has accomplished a lot but it got megabucks from day one.

Despite a few criticisms, there are several values worth stating again and again. Wilentz describes Haiti as a “feel-good” tourist destination. After the earthquake, this accelerated into a “crisis caravan” with thousands of missionaries, engineers, heath care workers, architects, and disaster professionals thundering to Haiti with “salvation” fantasies.  They believed they could generate solutions to Haiti’s problems. In a country with 70% unemployment, there are many Haitian professionals who could provide these services and were, indeed, hungry for work in a city that was virtually demolished.

But these newbies mistook themselves as part of a grand solution when in fact they were part of Haiti’s ongoing problem. Who better to build back Haiti but Haitians themselves? Wilentz agrees and says it’s even better when “Haitian things are built by Haitians themselves, with their own investment and planning. Then those things reflect Haitian character, culture and imagination”.

BINGOs (Big International NGOs, you know who I am talking about) also flocked to Haiti after the quake with their SUVs and highly paid consultants, many of whom were out of touch with the everyday people. It reminded me of the time I was sitting on the veranda of the Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince, recounting a story to a USAID official about a recent meeting with peasants in the Artibonite province to discuss building a training center for growing plantains. The USAID employee, who was restricted to only State Department approved sites and usually spent all his time in front of a computer instead of people, asked “How did you know to do that?”

“We asked the people”, I blithely replied.

Many NGOs, American aid workers, and foreign volunteers forget to ask the people what they want.

As the former Executive Director of the Lambi Fund of Haiti, I learned this is the basic premise for success in Haiti. Haiti has a lot of problems but Haitians must be part of the solution. Sure, some skills training may be needed but Haitians themselves have a wealth of ideas, creative solutions and a desire to build their own. Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way, and Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning author of Development as Freedom ask:  Does development aid ever work? Might donations be better spent investing in local enterprises? Can programs conceived by foreigners achieve results in differing cultures and practices than their own? Or are they trying to replicate themselves cookie-cutter style in a developing country? Should donors decide how aid is to be used (or not)?

This leads to the question “How do donors learn about local Haitian-led solutions that work?” Until there is a tool that informs us of effective, transparent, transformational efforts that are developed by the local people, donors will continue to be drawn to the BINGOs and celebrities who garner more than their fair share of publicity and may actually incur unintended consequences.

Perhaps there should be a data base with rigorous criteria of exemplary Haitian-led programs that could help guide donors through the maze of helpful and not so helpful groups working in Haiti. Then we might see lasting, positive impact.

And that is a project that Ashmore Consulting and its associates may very well tackle.


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