Toward A Research Agenda For Activism

Haiti is home to many projects, intended to solve many problems. Sensational narratives like the recent Rolling Stone feature highlight the enormous failure rate for these projects, as well as the frustration of people involved in them. Their complaints are typical fare for tales of international aid failures: poor coordination, incompetence, corruption, and waste abound, with no clear lines of accountability.

Exposés like these are good at drumming up interest and opening the relief effort to criticism. Unfortunately, they fall short in the arena of deeper analysis. That’s where the Haiti Justice Alliance comes in.

On this blog, we’ve attempted to create a model for research-activism. This approach to activism is important for two reasons.

Speaking To, Rather Than Past, Each Other

First, for what it prevents: commentators casually dispense misinformation about Haiti, and grounding discussions in empirical information is an antidote to that unfortunate reality.

The misinformation problem stems not from journalists or even from bloggers, but from our political leaders themselves. One example is when Sec. Clinton and Canadian Foreign Minister Cannon chastised and threatened the Haitian government for squandering reconstruction money. Ironically, their speech came one week after Paul Farmer wrote in Foreign Policy that Haiti’s government controlled only 0.3% of the reconstruction funds.

In these cases, the typical outcome is that one side cries “imperialism!” while the other dismisses their perspective as baseless or representing a fringe view. The hope behind research-activism is that diligent research can create common ground to serve as a starting point for better dialogue.

Problems Without Solutions?

Second, and more importantly, the research agenda for activism is necessary if we want to transition from hand-wringing to problem-solving conversations. An excerpt from the Rolling Stone piece, which exemplifies hand-wringing conversations, can illustrate the distinction between these two. Then, we’ll discuss how the Haiti Justice Alliance has tackled the same issue, but more productively, using the research approach.

“[State Dept.’s] Cheryl Mills came in and started asking very hard questions, like ‘Why is it that we’ve put all this money and all this time into Haiti and gotten nothing out of it?’” recalls Robert Maguire, chairman of the Haiti Working Group… Mills was appalled, Maguire recalls, by the abysmal record of U.S. aid in Haiti, and was particularly critical of the NGOs, many of which had spent decades there without producing any lasting change.”

A moderate research effort could have quickly uncovered at least partial answers to her questions. In fact, the Haiti Justice Alliance has just undergone such a research effort. Last week, we concluded a series of posts about US post-quake aid choices. Before that, we wrote on how some of USAID’s worst practices are artifacts of decades-old laws such as the Cargo Preference Act of 1931 and the widely criticized Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.

Rolling Stone paints Cheryl Mills as the savvy, hard-nosed pragmatist. Thus, when she’s stumped by why nothing comes of US efforts in Haiti, it contributes to the perception that Haiti’s problems are intractable. The reality, however, is straightforward: US aid to Haiti has systematically ignored best practices, such as untying aid, fostering local institutions/participation, and reducing military and imported food aid.

This is just one example of how the research agenda helps move beyond the low-level exchanges that typify mainstream Haiti reporting.

The Need for a Research Agenda

The question, “Why has foreign assistance to Haiti failed?” is easier than most. Yet painting it as unanswerable can be paralyzing. The point here is not that answering this question will solve any of Haiti’s problems—only that we must dispatch of arguing over the easy questions, so we can begin addressing the hard ones.

We believe the Haiti Justice Alliance’s research agenda for activism is indispensable for dispatching of these easy questions. A few others already employ this approach, and their efforts have produced invaluable resources for Haiti activists. For instance, Haiti Grassroots Watch and CEPR’s Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch are leaders in this arena, both of which blend research and reporting techniques.

But HJA is uniquely well positioned to implement this agenda. We draw on the engagement and excitement of students at the two colleges in Northfield, MN, where we’re based. We seek to use this energy, combined with students’ ongoing training in research methods, to become a model for research-driven activism in the Haiti justice community.

Whether it’s by following our blog or contributing directly through donations or partnership, we hope you’ll join us in this effort. You can see how research-driven activism fits into the broader goals for our organization on our About page.

One Response to Toward A Research Agenda For Activism

  1. [...] Justice Alliance (HJA) attempts to enlighten the Cheryl Mills of the world to the irony of their egocentric questions given the reality of their position of dominance.  While Hillary Clinton’s denunciation of [...]

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