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


  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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