UNDP’s Questionable Claims of Progress

By Scott Freeman, Visiting Scholar

Heraldo Muñoz, the Chilean Assistant Secretary-General and Assistant Administrator Director of the Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, UNDP, recently published an article in Foreign Policy regarding the ‘real’ recovery of Haiti. It was seemingly a response to recent books on the topic of reconstruction and development (for example, here) and New York Times pieces (here and here). In it, he argues that the critics are wrong, that Haitians are thriving, and that ‘development’ is flourishing.

I’ve been pleased as of late to see that headlines are critically examining, and not forgetting, the unfolding events regarding the aid sector in Haiti. Yet I am concerned by the article by Dr. Muñoz as it relates to the work of this blog: to think more critically about aid in Haiti. To cite that “among Haitians, the sense of progress is unmistakable” seems quite a statement in the face of much writing to the contrary. I’d like to draw attention in particular to the sources he cites.

Gallup poll is cited with conviction, yet the results seem confusing at best. The poll found more Haitians thriving after the earthquake, and also found that in 2010, the very year of the earthquake, fewer Haitians were suffering than in previous years. While ‘suffering’ has supposedly decreased, the poll also notes that the numbers who are struggling has risen steadily. As a social scientist working on the island of Hispaniola (home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti), I have found the types of questions used by the Gallup poll (based on a sliding ladder scale of self-evaluation) incredibly problematic to translate cross culturally. These types of questions generate ample confusion and minimally accurate results. In effect, the results of the poll may represent more about how the poll was carried out than about the perceptions and opinions of Haitians themselves. The Gallup website itself responsibly introduces this doubt into its data: “In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls” (Gallup).

This brings me to a discussion of the glorification of project ‘evaluation’. While a longer treatment of ‘evaluation’ is necessary (and will be attempted in the future in this blog space), a couple of key points are raised by this sort of publication and promotion. First, there seems to be a divorce between the evaluations/reports that Muñoz cites and the writings and research of Mark Schuller, Jonathan Katz,  and many other scholars and reporters. Second, a key difference is that while authors critical of the results of aid (and perhaps the larger development apparatus in general) base their writings off of firsthand accounts in Haiti, Muñoz uses his own UNDP projects and polls to make his statements.

My third concern, and perhaps the most disconcerting, is that this article seems to be an account not of how Haitians are faring, but rather, the ‘successes’ of UNDP projects. In a country that has largely become defined by an endless string of aid projects, turning to project evaluations is an almost ubiquitous phenomenon. Yet there is a very distinct difference between the success of a project and the well-being of individuals. A citation of numbers served by a particular UNDP initiative does not indicate the success of development in Haiti.

Most Haitians I spoke with while conducting fieldwork in 2012 felt that international aid had done little but to provide jobs for foreigners. The phrase yo ap manje kob (they eat up money) came up again and again when discussing NGOs and development institutions.

I fear for the types of decisions that are made when high level aid administrators cultivate an ‘informed opinion’ by simply examining organizationally produced reports and questionable quantitative measures. Perhaps these perspectives would be broadened by more direct conversations with Haitians themselves.

Haitian Recovery? Source: Foreign Policy
Haitian Recovery? Source: Foreign Policy