UVA Student Researches ‘Grey Zone’ in Haitian Aid

Nicole Demitry used a Harrison Undergraduate Research grant to study the effect of foreign aid in Haiti.
February 28, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a three-part series profiling the work of 2017 Harrison Undergraduate Research Award winners.

Nicole Demitry’s research into humanitarian aid to Haiti found a lot of hard questions and no easy answers.

Demitry, of Warrenton, a third-year student at the University of Virginia double-majoring in foreign affairs and anthropology, received a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award to explore  humanitarian aid in the nation still devastated by a 2010 earthquake.

Specifically, she studied the grey zone between emergency aid and disaster relief versus a more long-term, sustainable development, and who gets to decide when the immediate disaster has ended and the long-term development starts. Because there are no standards of accountability for disaster relief, compared to the stricter standards of development aid, much of it is syphoned off, with less than 1.8 percent of the aid money reaching the Haitian people – a problem further exacerbated by a rapid turnover of aid personnel.

Demitry interviewed aid workers from the American Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the World Bank, Partners in Health and USAID. She separated the interviewees into three major categories – field workers, policymakers and those in donor relations.

“Those interviews completely reshaped a lot of my own perceptions on the development and humanitarian aid field and pointed me toward a narrower lens for my final paper,” she said.

Demitry said two themes developed through her interviews: timing is a huge problem, and everyone was well aware of all the problems.

Problems of timing, such as deciding when a crisis ends, are exacerbated by short in-country stays and burnout from those giving aid, she said.

“Not only are aid workers cycled through deployments too quickly to see the long-term results of their projects, but they’re also moved too quickly to really establish cultural knowledge or rapport with the locals,” Demitry said. “Specifically on the timing of disaster relief and ‘capacity-building’ or long-term sustainable development – there’s no hard definition on either one, and it can contribute to some massive long-term issues, especially when aid organizations use disaster relief protocols far after the disaster has passed.”

Because of this, countries such as Haiti end up overrun with Western aid agencies and experience absorptive capacity (the rate money or assistance can be effectively used or absorbed in a situation) with funding, cultural clashes, racial diaspora and economic exploitation.  

“All the aid workers I interviewed know the many problems, but they work within a structure that is controlled by a homogenous body of wealthy countries,” Demitry said. “None of the countries receiving aid have input on decisions made by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the International Committee for the Red Cross , Oxfam, or the UN Security Council.”

Demitry, who has worked in Haiti for several years with a direct trade coffee company, said the Haitian people are angry about the way they are being treated.

“Every aid worker I interviewed has a story about individuals in high-power positions doing unspeakable things with local populations,” she said. “It is not a secret. In certain circles, it’s a joke. A lot of it has to do with power dynamics.  These things happen again and again and again, and there is little to no accountability from the international community. It’s incredibly upsetting for me to see, and I’m not even the one directly affected by it. I also think it would be hard to find any Haitian that believes the system was designed to help them, even in theory.”

For this research, the University’s International Student Office would not let Demitry travel to Haiti for reasons of her own personal safety. She was not allowed to interview Haitians and was restricted to interviewing aid workers who were not currently in Haiti.

“I am actually really fortunate that the ISO set me on a different path, because I think I learned a lot more,” Demitry said. “Without being able to interview the recipients of aid in Haiti, I was able to focus instead on the perceptions of the aid workers themselves.”

Her interviews with the relief workers raised more questions.

“How can all these brilliant, well-educated, empathetic, hard-working professionals still be working in a system that is so broken?” she said. “And how can we balance short-term solutions during crises with their long-term impacts? That line of questioning pointed me to some more structural issues within the aid industry, more specifically, the issue of timing.”

Demitry detected an enormous perceptual disconnect.

“It has to do with this plethora of factors such as racial diaspora, donor influence, horizontal accountability, poor leadership, communication issues, structural violence, colonialism, realpolitik decisions dating back to the Cold War and earlier,” she said. “How do they fit together in this specific situation?  I think that particular question of timing helps chip away a little bit about what went so very wrong in Haiti, and continues to go wrong today; why the [non-governmental organizations] do what they do, why there are so many, how Haitians feel about it, and how this protocol of aid impacts American politics, domestically and globally.”

Demitry’s adviser on the project, John Owen – who chairs UVA’s Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics and is the Taylor Professor of Politics – said Demitry has a deep love and respect for the Haitian people.

“She knows the country,” he said. “On her visits, she could see that the best intentions, large amounts of money and impressive technical expertise of large outside NGOs had not improved conditions for Haitians after the devastating 2010 earthquake, and may even have made matters worse.”

Owen said her paper on her research made for “riveting reading.”

“It is a hard lesson in how unintended consequences – some perhaps inevitable, but some owing to a failure by NGOs to take local conditions adequately into account – can thwart the best-laid plans of experienced, well-funded, humane people and organizations,” he said.

One conclusion Demitry has reached is this is work that she wants to do.

“I learned that I really want to work in this field for the rest of my life, and I can honestly say this has been the most rewarding experience I've had at UVA,” she said. “I also learned that the field that I’m interested in is exceedingly complex and there are far more complicating factors in development aid than I originally imagined.”

Her experience may have turned her away from academic research, since she has seen a lot of academic researchers swarming over Haiti, but very little of their work translated into policy.

“Put simply, excellent research does not equal excellent policy, not even remotely,” Demitry said. “In a perfect world, it would, and every politics and policy decision would be informed by a holistic process of anthropological, sociological and locally informed research. Unfortunately, we live in an aggressively neoliberal global society and knowing better doesn’t mean doing better.”

Demitry wants to pursue a law degree and work with the connections she has made in the humanitarian/development world.

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications