Flawed Earthquake Report a Bullwhip On the Backs of Haitians

haiti's palace

March 2010 and six weeks after earthquake

In its first tenet, the ethics code for journalists states journalists should not only be fair and honest in reporting and interpreting information, they must also “seek the truth and report it.” In this age of public relations ploys masquerading as news, and personal and political agendas disguised as newsworthy “leaks,” it is imperative that readers, writers, and editors apply critical thinking before jumping onto the information bandwagon.

A news “leak” implies that the disseminated information is being purposely withheld from the public and that the release of the information will benefit the public good. Protection of the source is expected, because the source of the information may suffer retaliation. Leaks differ from an “embargo” of information, which is an agreement not to publish until a particular time frame has passed, or until certain conditions for publication have been met.

A USAID draft report,”Building Assessments and Rubble Removal” (BARR), in earthquake ravaged Haiti was cited on May 27 by Agence France-Presse (AFP) and promptly picked up by the Associated Press before it went global. Generated on March 15, the 40 page graphic-heavy report contains a potential bombshell in a conclusion contradicting the official Haitian death toll of 200-250,000. The BARR report says, “The number of fatalities that resulted from the earthquake is estimated at 46,190 to 84,961.”

The report, conducted for USAID by the consulting firm, LTL Strategies, also reduces the United Nations figure of 680,000 homeless to 68,000. The premature release of this non-peer-reviewed report serves no one, and the State Department has already distanced itself from the findings. According to HaitiLibre:

Mark Toner, spokesman for the State Department says “the first draft of the report contained internal inconsistencies with its own findings,” adding “we are reviewing these inconsistencies with LTL Strategies to ensure information we release is accurate.”

“The first draft of the report contained internal inconsistencies with its own findings,” Department spokesperson Preeti Shah echoed Toner.

She would not elaborate or say whether the report could change significantly once the inconsistencies are resolved. Haitian government officials said they had not seen the report and could not discuss it.

This document should never have been promoted to the public. “Promoted” is a carefully chosen word here. The question that has not been answered is “what is the possible motivation” for the release of this document?” Was it motivated by political expediency? Let’s rebrand the “leak” and call it “Public Relations” for the sake of this discussion.

There is a public record of a timeline that might be useful here.

At a Senate hearing on May 11, Republicans, led by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), described U.S. relief efforts in Haiti as “pathetic” and said USAID had failed to track its spending and appropriately monitor outcomes.

USAID administrator, Rajiv Shah responded, “You can’t judge the effort in Haiti in one or two years.” “Haiti has been a very poor country for a long time.” With those words Shah effectively erased the impact of the January 2010 earthquake. It is the same line of reasoning used by the United Nations in it latest report on the cholera epidemic, which effectively blamed Haiti for not having the sanitation infrastructure necessary to slow the spread of the contagion introduced by United Nations troops. The final UN reportblames a “confluence of circumstances” instead of the reality of a confluence of contaminated effluents introduced by Nepalese troops into the Artibonite River system.


Lost in the Midst of Cholera October 2010

If USAID is behind the premature release of the flawed and unscientific BARR report, the report serves Shah’s denial very well.

There is another story that unfolded a few days before the release of the embargoed BARR report. It was not widely reported or dissected in the media, but it should have been.

In another AP report, Daniel-Gerard Rouzier, who is nominated to be the new Haitian Prime Minister by President Michel Martelly, said he wanted to do away with the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), chaired by former US President Bill Clinton and the outgoing Haitian prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive. On May 25, Rouzier said he wanted to eliminate the commission because of slow progress, called it “dysfunctional,” and indicated he would replace it with anew government agency. “What I can tell you is that the (commission) as it exists today will not continue,” Rouzier said in an interview. “I don’t mean to crucify the people who came up with the concept. But sometimes when something doesn’t work you have to fix it.” This was two days before the BARR report was released. cont’d on page 2


  1. says

    This was an interesting article and associated string of commentary. Thank you.
    I have read a great many statistical reports including the BARR report draft, and I am challenged to understand what your statisticians found of consequence in the report beside the typos one might expect in a draft. You criticize “white space”. Is there a problem there? Nonetheless, if indeed you know Schwartz, and the history of his work, his background, and his writing, why would you question that his interests are in opposition to those of the Haitian people?
    How do his statistical findings hurt the Haitian people? It would be interesting to read your insights on that question. I just finished Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, and Schwartz seems to be in good company when he describes the problems associated with international aid in his book, Travesty in Haiti. Could it be that there are at least a couple, if not several competing conceptualizations of what’s “good” for Haiti? Why is Schwartz “blackballed” from any work relating to food aid in Haiti right now? It wouldn’t seem to be because of any allegiance to status quo aid practices given his level of criticism of current aid practices.
    I am wondering what a lower (and by the way, still devastating) death toll means in terms of harming the welfare of the Haitian people. What does a higher death toll mean in that same vein? I am not convinced that Schwartz has created a flawed report as much as I wonder why the aid community is terribly upset at the findings.
    Is the spigot turning in the wrong direction for some? Will the IDP’s be hurt by the report’s findings? Are the number of people living in condemned buildings as high as Schwartz, et al purport?
    I have a non-profit operating in Port au Prince for the past 5 years. I am a neophyte in understanding the Haitian people and their wants, wishes, and needs. I haven’t heard yet from any of the Haitian people I am in touch with that they either agree or disagree with the report. Lots of blans have made comments (perhaps even more than have read the report), and that always fascinates me – how we profess opinion before we ask those most deeply effected. That’s the “white space” I am more concerned about.
    John Evans

    • Georgianne Nienaber says

      Hi John,

      I don’t want to keep beating this now-dead horse. USAID has distanced itself, President Martelly will not comment on an un-released report, and that sums it up. This was an embargoed document that should never have been released. It was unethical to do so. You have no idea how many of these types of documents get emailed to me because the authors are not getting traction and want publicity. Sometimes the entity that bought a report will leak it as a trial balloon. The BARR report was circulating in Haiti for several weeks with no takers until a young journalist cherry picked the numbers and created a monster. If you work with AID organizations, you know that numbers are everything. A lot of people have not seen it, even though the full report is on the net, because it is embargoed. Many of us respect embargoed documents and will not link to them. Hopefully the BARR report is dead and buried along with the 250-300 K victims of the January 2010 earthquake. In the time I spent to go over this one more time, I could be writing about the cholera epidemic which is ramping up and stands to kill many more.

  2. Georgianne Nienaber says

    My greatest hope is that the powerful and intelligent Haitian women who have come together in this commentary find common ground to work together. You all share the same vision for Haiti and I think you all have the ability to affect great change.

  3. regine barjon says

    I think we are all on the same page. I think we all want a viable and prosperous Haiti. I also think we are all agreed that the status quo does not work. Even is the tools and venues we prefer, know or choose are different. Sharing opinions and beliefs and expressing ourselves is a great thing. 2 minds are always better than one. So, I am most grateful for all of the opinions stated in this thread.

    And, I actually see and believe that many fine and legitimate points have been made. But in reading the many opinions and responses from Mrs. Nienaber’s article especially in the aftermath of the wikileaks published articles, I come away with a changed mindset on some counts:

    (1) that though the US DOES have a GREAT DEAL of influence on the Haitian political scene and the Haitian economy, the wikileaks articles overtly and unequivocally indicate that this influence is just mainly through the power of persuation, – Thus, THE US DOES NOT BY ANY MEANS RULE or control HAITI!

    (Per Wikileaks: – We see that quite obviously with former President Preval standing up to former US Ambassador to Haiti with the Petro-Caribe fuel deals which was to save Haiti some US$ 100 million annually and wanting to invest the purpoted savings in hospitals, etc…
    I would also like to know and get more information regarding the implementation and location of former President Preval’s social projects.
    Let’s also note previous articles that stated that the US strongly encouraged Preval to do away with the CEO (Provisional Electoral Council and he said NO. Period).

    (2) If one follows that logic, then its stands that Haiti must also take the blame and/or responsibility and be accountable for many of its ill-advised decisions, poor management and rampant corruption.
    Not acknowledging that is burying our heads in the sand collectively and sanctioning a continuum of the status quo, – which I think we are all agreed can be vastly improved.

    (3) The same logic must also follow and we must realise that though we, as Haitians and Haitian-Americans consistently call on our US representatives to do “right” by Haiti, – we must rightfully and fully acknowledge and be aware that US representatives are US representatives. That is what we elect and pay them for. They are NOT Haitian representatives.

    Therefore, the result should be that any and all efforts on the part of Haitians nationals or its Diaspora for Haiti must be to work and to present to the international community, – which represents over 60% of Haiti’s budget, – alternatives to the status quo.

    The alternative to the status quo is Investment, Not AID!

    Both, the US as part of the international community, – which pays for all AID and pratically every program in Haiti, – as well as the Government of Haiti must understand that it is in our collective best interest to work and establish alternatives economic models to the status quo: that is to Aid.

    If our goal is for Haiti to be economicallly self-sufficient and economically independent, – which means food security for its 5.2 million food insecure people, – and to improve the standard of living for all of its people, then we must work together to design and implement strategies that will provide basic infrastructure such as water, energy, good roads, education, etc… for everyone.

    So, yes. In my humble opinion that includes taxing Diaspora remittances valued at US$ 1.8 Billion annually to raise funds which will allow and provide free education for all children is NOT a bad thing.

    I am not looking to change the world. But I am aiming to use practical solutions available with the tools available to put into practice for the benefit of Haiti.

    Political games have been played time immorial. That will continue. Just as the stronger nations will more often than not prevail. But, as seen in the wikileaks articles, Haiti is not powerless. Haiti can effectively implement some basic solutions, – some independently and some with international aid to meet its people’s needs.

    Haitian leaders must not see power as a means to riches to the detriment of those they supposedly represent.

    Haiti must look to the long-term by melting Haitians living in Haiti and her Diaspora to work together to find solutions in all sectors that will meet the needs of Haitians.

  4. says

    @regine barjon No one entity enjoys “placing blame” more than the United States government on the victims of their interventions, bullying, wars and all around corrupt foreign policy in developing countries.

    Michel Martelly is was not legitimately elected by the people of Haiti. He was “selected” in a flawed process, financed and supported by the “international” community, where less than 20% voted (the lowest turnout in the Western Hemisphere), and where Haiti’s most popular party was barred from participation.

    His education policy is to be financed on the backs of the poor majority by taxing the Diaspora’s remittances and cell phone transactions, rather than the rich elitists who have exploited and denigraded them in the apartheid undemocratic neoliberal system supported by the United States.

    As for hoping that the Martelly government will “work with the international community and the US” — Surely, that is why they made sure that Martelly was in place as their “good will ambassador” in Haiti?

    Mr. Martelly will do just as Washington says. As evidenced by the way he quashed his V.P.’s ambitious plan to disband the IHRC.

    The plan is to continue the status quo of exploiting the poor and benefiting the rich. The same “trickle down theory” that is supported by the Obama administration in the U.S. and globally. Unless there is radical change in the neoliberal mindset, it’s just business as usual. The business of continuing at the scene of an international crime, which started with the removal of Haiti’s first democratically elected government with the support of the former head of the CIA, Bush, Sr. in 1991 and the second coup in 2004 supported by his son Bush, Jr.

    Burying your head in the sand, and pretending that Haiti is free will not going to make everything alright. Face it, the “friends of Haiti” are not really in the “game” for the benefit of Haiti. They are in Haiti because it benefits them. That brings us to the topic of USAID, which was the target of much criticism by the U.S. Congress just before this “leaked”report. A Congress which actually makes the policies governing this “aid” agency. Maybe the first thing to do should be to revise the policy of 93% of the aid money must come back to the U.S. With “friends” like these…

    • Star Womanspirit says

      Timothy Schwartz…maybe you’re the last to know (have you got your head stuck in the sand or something) but wikileaks has EXPOSED the US as one big bully keeping Haiti poor and abusing the people (I think the bullying and abusing people is something they are now intent on doing here at home with the US population)…so maybe you’ve decided it’s best to join and defend the bullies? I’ll give you this as a reference point http://www.democracynow.org/2011/6/3/wikileaks_cables_reveal_secret_history_of

      because corporate media is nothing more than propaganda for the rich and powerful!!

      Thanks you Georgianne for being one of the independent journalists that I can trust!

  5. says

    Wow. Giorgianne. I usually enjoy your work but this one not only fires at me, it strikes me as neither fair nor very well thought out. Indeed you set out criticizing journalists for being unfair and not seeking the truth and then you do exactly that.

    If there are grammatical mistakes in the report, well, I never saw the very final version but there was a train of editors and I’m skeptical that it is even true. And I’m wondering why you would pick on that.

    As for your other points: Shooting at the p value for the percentage sign behind it is rather lame. The report has the p value without percentage sign in over 100 places. You didn’t say that. You implied that the percentage sign was behind all of the p values and that this was evidence of some kind of poor understanding of statistics (for those who don’t know much about stats, without getting too deep here, the .01 in fact means 1 percent).

    As for the .05 p value convention. That’s simply not true. People use both .05 and .01. The better the data demonstrates a point, the more inclined a researcher is to use the lower value. In this case why not, it slams the point home. You’re criticizing the data for being too powerful? For making demonstrating a point too well?

    Same for the wide confidence interval. The point is that the estimation is a far cry from official reports.
    As for including a summary of the government tally of the reporting. Anyone who read the report would want to know. Don’t you want to know how we both arrived at such a radically different number? Moreover, it’s not an opinion about the government’s procedure; its’ a summary of journalist inquiries and government statements about just how they arrived at the death toil.

    You say that 5.2 people per household is some random number pulled out of the air or from other unspecified reports. No. It’s the average based on respondents reported prequake household size in the BARR sample. Why would we use the average household size from elsewhere? What it said in the report is that the figure of 5.2 is consistent with other reports and surveys. And I know because over the past 21 years I have evaluated hundreds of them and conducted dozens on both sides of this island.

    I also note that you said nothing about the fact that the BARR data garners solid support from the digicel phone data analysis of IDP movement after the quake. Those same movements and the number of people involved were corroborated OCHA which had people on the ground counting. There is no better check on the data than that. Why didn’t you say anything about that? Were you still thinking about the fair and honest reporting that you began the article with?

    The data was neither invented nor doctored. I am as stunned as anyone else to see how well it fits into the politics of the moment. But i can assure you, there is no way that USAID fiddled and delayed and manipulated so that this report would come out exactly when it did. They are simply not that well coordinated and there would be no sense in making all that effort just to dupe me. I’m talking about the surprises, delays, snafus. USAID is not what people on the outside think it is. There are some excellent people on the inside but it’s another bureaucracy. Same for the State Department.

    There is no dark conspiracy.

    There was another point you made. You reference the Defend Haiti website and the author pointing to a blog I wrote as an example of my obsession with the violence after the earthquake, and my working with the military. You know my book and you know that’s not me. That blog was meant precisely to illustrate how misguided the entire effort was and how the press, the military and many of the aid workers were unnecessarily afraid of the Haitians and how the press irresponsibly aggravated the fear, helping delay the aid and medical relief to even a greater extent. If you had read the blog, which you clearly did not, you would have recognized how the Defend Haiti site twisted my writing in what I can only qualify as a very suspicious manner.

    Frankly I don’t know why you wrote all of that. And I don’t know why you simply didn’t ask me about all these things since we are in touch on email. Did you even notice that I wrote the report?

    What did you say Geogianne, “In its first tenet, the ethics code for journalists states that journalists should not only be fair and honest in reporting and interpreting information, they must also “seek the truth and report it.”

    Doctor heal thyself.

    Timothy T Schwartz (PhD)

    • Georgianne Nienaber says

      I will carefully avoid personal attacks in this exchange. Statisticians agree with me. The report is flawed. Nowhere did I mention any of the author’s names. Your previous unfair comments about the Haitian people speak volumes, as well as your accusations about them in the report. I reject categorically everything you say here, and that is where I will leave it. I know who leaked the report and so do you. be careful of the attention you seek, because you just might get it.


      BTW you did not spell my name correctly, it is Georgianne

      • Georgianne Nienaber says

        This just came to me via email:

        US: Flaws in death toll report on Haiti quake
        By TRENTON DANIEL, Associated Press – 1 day ago
        PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Flaws have been found in a controversial U.S. report estimating the death toll from Haiti’s earthquake last year was far lower than previously thought, a U.S. official said Friday.
        It was the strongest statement yet by U.S. government officials since a leaked draft report commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development raised questions over just how many people died and were displaced in the January 2010 quake, an unparalleled natural disaster that unleashed an outpouring of foreign aid.
        Mark Feierstein of the U.S. Agency for International Development said the report is problematic because the authors used a statistical sampling that was not representative. The study didn’t include data from heavily damaged areas in Haiti’s countryside or from the number of houses that collapsed and killed people, he said.
        “Those are all serious flaws,” Feierstein, USAID’s assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
        The report’s lead author, Timothy T. Schwartz, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.


  6. says

    The reality is that USAID is Disaster Capitalism brought to you and them by the Disaster Capitalists at the US State Dept.

    It’s real hard to swallow that the US cares about the Haitians on any level as evidenced by the State Dept’s refusal to allow 2 planes of Cuban doctors and medical staff to land an give aid. i can’t think of low enough words for the Capitalist Pigs/Fascists who would refuse to allow world renowned aid under such dismal conditions – [it should be noted that the Cubans were on hand — seen in the back ground of CNN news reports (they were already in the area – i don’t know why)].
    The subjugation of the Haitians is the Neo-Liberal model for defecation on 3rd world countries…they’ll tweek the numbers anyway they can to get Disaster Capitalists easy money while the Haitians lose in the Zero Sum Game of Capitalism…buh bye Haitians.
    I’d like to see the stats on this from the IMF and the WorldMoguls.

    • Georgianne Nienaber says

      The Cuban medical brigade has been doing consistent work ever since the quake. They are accessible and sensitive to the culture. Can’t say the same for the rest of the international medical corps who isolate their volunteers from the culture, are secretive, imperious and insensitive.

  7. regine barjon says


    Thank you for a very insightful article.

    Let us note that no matter what PR games are being played by the US and Haiti or why Haiti is being punished or not, – the reality remains that the new Government of Haiti must have the vision and the political will to do what works for Haiti and its people by establishing and adopting programs which lead to greater economic independence for Haiti, – so as to reduce economic dependence which benefits neither the US nor Haiti.

    In other words, it is and has always been very easy to blame the US.
    That is a tactic that has given respective Governments of Haiti a consistent free ride all around: in the press, with the international community, even within the very US government consistently critisized often fairly and often not,- while simultaneously also calling on [the very same US] to do more.

    Past Haitian governments have all but eschewed Economic independence to better remove all responsibility and accountability that most governments proudly adopt.

    The US does this or did not do that or did not do it right or did not do enough…
    And all of the above may very well be right, but,-let us also be aware and be honest in that the earthquake for example, -quite simply .. yes greatly exacerbated Haiti’s troubles.

    But let us give credit where due, as we enjoy placing blame:
    Let us note that in the aftermath of the earthquake that primarely the US, Canada, EU governments and the international private sector mobilized huge volumes of resources [and many projects] – which were fully approved initially by the former government of Haiti and its President Preval, – only to be dropped at the last minute with goods not allowed to be used to benefit the people of Haiti or projects not allowed to be implemented due primarely to former President Preval’s government supposed fear of being taken over by the US or more truthfully, because bribes were not being paid out.

    The new Martelly goverment, – without a full government in place has already passed regulations that ensures free education for many.
    This is a good start and a good example of potential self-sufficiency.

    Let’s also hope that the Martelly government can work with the International community and the US especially to better optimize international “PR” and “goodwill” to benefit his people.

    At the forefront of President Martelly’s priorities should be food security for Haitians with the reduction of US goodwill of rice “donations” and other products such as sugar and poultry which have effectively deciminated Haitian agriculture and are responsible for 50% of Haiti’s annual trade deficit.
    Tackling this sector would create jobs, increase gdp and would reduce dependence on food imports,- which are subject to fuel and global market prices.

    A renegotiation of Haiti’s World Trade Policy Agreements should be a good start to demonstrate mutually benificial international and Haitian goodwill and responsible governance.

    Investments not Aid is the key to mitigate too much “PR” and “goodwill”.

    Friends of Haiti and Haitian-Americans should look towards investing in Haiti to contribute to Haitian economic independence.

    • Georgianne Nienaber says

      Thanks Regine. We need more Haitian voices in this space. Well, we need more Haitian voices everywhere!

  8. Georgianne Nienaber says

    There are many Haitian truth tellers, You just don’t get the opportunity to hear them. We need to fix that.

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