Flawed Earthquake Report a Bullwhip On the Backs of Haitians


Adjacent blocks in downtown Port-au-Prince, late November, 2010 (Copyright G.Nienaber)

The IHRC was formed after the January 2010 quake so that international donors would have assurance that reconstruction would be free from corruption, once again blaming Haiti for the mishandling of foreign aid donations, but not scrutinizing the international charities who receive the reconstruction money directly from agencies such as USAID.

Possibly realizing that Rouzier had committed a faux-pas and bitten the donor hand that is supposed to be feeding Haiti, President Michel Martelly did an about-face and said he and Rouzier, are “”very open and willing to begin discussions’ with Clinton and the international community about the commission to ‘make it more efficient’ as its members seek to rebuild Haiti from the devastating 2010 earthquake.”

If USAID wanted to slap down the new Haitian government for criticizing the Clinton IRHC, the BARR report would do the job nicely. Play down the death toll and the need for reconstruction and send a message that Haiti must still play by colonialist US rules. It would not matter in the end what the truth of the BARR report is. The headline that will stick in donors’ minds is that the earthquake was not such a big deal after all. The threat of diminishing donations replaces the nice carrot and stick approach to Haiti with a bullwhip.

If USAID and or the State Department are not behind the public relations release of this embargoed document to the press, we are left with the authors as the source. Either they believed they had a very good report that has been languishing since March, or they have an ax to grind. Let’s assume that the authors just wanted to make the report public and had nothing but good intentions. Defend Haiti would disagree with that statement, but you can read their take on the matter here.

It was the responsibility of the journalists who published this report to exercise caution and critical thinking. Would the BARR report ever pass scientific muster? Doubtful.

Even though it is a “draft” report, the document is riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors. US tax dollars paid for this, and even though the graphics are spectacular, content is lacking. White space is everywhere. Editorializing is rampant and has no place in a scientific study that by definition should be impartial from the get-go. The scientific method is all but abandoned, and a simplistic “hypothesis” that rubble removal encourages displaced people to return home is introduced.

What is especially troubling is that the authors present a tangential argument about the death toll. It is on page 36 that the scientific errors leap out at anyone who has even a minor understanding of statistical analysis. The authors “assume” 5.2 people per Haitian household and give nothing to back this up, except that this number is “found in large surveys throughout the island (something so consistent at to arguably be considered a law).” [Parenthesis by authors]

The authors then go on to introduce the statistical “p” value of “less than .01 %.” Red flags should be going up everywhere. A “p” value is never expressed as a percentage. It is meaningless to express it that way. For example, a “p” value of .05 (one in twenty) means that there is a 5% probability that the relation between the variables found in a sample is by chance. It was also quite generous of the authors to arrive at a “p” value of less than one in one hundred when one in twenty is the accepted norm. If these were the best statisticians on the planet one might grant them a less than .01 “p” value. But a “p” value expressed as .01 % does not exist in mathematical language.

Page 37 is devoted to an egregious opinion piece that accuses the government of Haiti of lying about the death toll. This page alone should serve as a valid reason to relegate this “study” to the rubble it purports to study.

Page 38 is also eye opening. For all of you whose eyes glaze over at the mention of statistics, look at it this way. If someone were hired to do a study of your hometown that required an accurate count of the residents, and they took a shot in the dark at a population range of somewhere between 18,690 and 66,625, and decided using that huge range and the elusive “p” value that there were probably 42,608 people in your town–your local unit of government would probably fire them. But Haiti cannot fire USAID or the people and consulting firms that work for USAID.

georgianne nienaber

Let’s hope there is some ad hoc peer review of this mess. For now, it is the messenger of an irresponsible press community that should bear the blame. No one forced anyone to publish the findings and the damage is done. Haiti remains the slave on the plantation as far as the international press is concerned.

In case readers skipped over the link to Defend Haiti, this comment is a must read.

“One side is lying. Either it is the international community that now wants to lead off the reconstruction of Haiti, without participation or representation of the Haitian people, or it is the State Department and the writers of their report who also have their own gains and interests, that do not regard the Haitian people.”

Georgianne Nienaber

Published by the LA Progressive on June 1, 2011
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About Georgianne Nienaber

Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota, New Orleans and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, The Ugandan Independent, Rwanda's New Times, India's TerraGreen, COA News, ZNET, OpEdNews, Glide Magazine, The Journal of the International Primate Protection League, Africa Front, The United Nations Publication, A Civil Society Observer, Bitch Magazine, and Zimbabwe's The Daily Mirror. Her fiction exposé of insurance fraud in the horse industry, Horse Sense, was re-released in early 2006. Gorilla Dreams: The Legacy of Dian Fossey was also released in 2006. She spent much of 2007-2009 doing research in South Africa, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Georgianne was in DRC as a MONUC-accredited journalist, and has been working in Southern Louisiana investigating hurricane reconstruction and getting to know the people there since late 2007. She is a member of the Memphis Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Georgianne is currently developing a short story collection set in Louisiana, and is continuing "to explore the magic of the Deep South."