Broken Promise: Anthropology And The Humanitarian Aid Sector

In December 2011, 23 months after the Haiti earthquake, in a single sentence, Professor Marc Schuller [1] wrote about the “holocaust,” “the middle passage”, and me—Timothy Schwartz– having “disrespected the memory of loved ones and their ancestors” (read the original on Counterpunch). It was a crafted suggestion of racism and anti-Semitism coupled with methodological malpractice, all producing an image of my twisting statistics into the service of a Nazi-spirited attack on the descendants of slaves. In the world of anthropology, where we pride ourselves on compassion for the poor and on cultural relativism, it’s hard to conceive of more damning imagery. I was arguably only a step away from captaining a slave ship myself or pulling the gas lever on a room for of holocaust victims. Indeed, perhaps worse for, according to Schuller, I had done it against, and not at the behest of my master, USAID. Schuller published his piece variously as a blog, an article under at least two different titles and on no fewer than four internet sites, including Counter Punch, the Huffington Post, and the Boston Reporter, none of which a reader was even permitted to comment on. [2]

The reason for the condemnation was a USAID report I wrote, one based on a survey known as the BARR Survey and that estimated the 2010 Haiti earthquake fatalities at 1/6th the official figures. Despite there being two other PhD authors on the study, Schuller singled me out, writing that “Schwartz” had used the BARR to measure things that “were not a part of his mandate from USAID,” by which he meant the death toll and an estimate of “legitimate” internally displaced persons (IDPs). He said that I acted as a “maverick,” that the report was not approved by USAID and that I had “leaked” it to the press, something that, if I had indeed done so, would have been illegal.

For some the attack was difficult to understand. Schuller and I share a special niche in the world of academia. We are both anthropologists, both critics of NGOs, both working in Haiti. Indeed, although I had never met nor even communicated with Schuller, we were probably among the most recognized international critics of aid regarding the tiny country of Haiti. Yet, Schuller never wrote me, never asked me about the study or the methods or if I had indeed leaked the report. He would go on in a 2012 anthology that he and Pablo Morales edited (Tectonic Shifts) to claim that “USAID rejected the report.” Yet, USAID did publish the report. That’s why the press had picked it up. To this day, the report, complete with its original May 13th 2011 publication data, is available online at the USAID website (take me to the BARR report on the USAID website).

So, what’s up with Schuller?

What no one—except perhaps another anthropologist—would have known upon reading Schuller’s critique of me was that it wasn’t just an attack on me and the report, it was an attack on what I represent and believe in: scientific methods. The attack was part of a 40-year old struggle that has been waged between Schuller’s academic mentors and my own. It’s an intellectual battle waged in the universities, out of sight of the general public, but it has arguably had devastating consequences for the aid industry, or rather, for the poor meant to benefit from humanitarian aid programs. Indeed, this struggle I am about to recount strikes at the very heart of why what I have called in a recent book, The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle, could even occur. To explain, one has to understand the evolution of anthropology and humanitarian aid industry. The two are—or at least once were– intricately intertwined. [3]

The rise of the modern humanitarian sector coincided almost exactly with the emergence of the science of anthropology. In 1854, before anthropology was a recognized discipline, there were only six international NGOs. By 1902, there were 163 International NGOs. It was in that same year, 1902, that the American Anthropological Association was founded. The organization would become the guiding force and regulatory body for anthropology in the U.S. There was no ambiguity regarding the mission of the organization. Its founders set out to create a cross-cultural discipline that would, as the charter declared, “promote the science of anthropology.” U.S. Anthropology subsequently grew at a fantastic rate. And so did the humanitarian sector.

Forty-three years later, at the end of World War II, 102 U.S. universities had anthropology undergraduate departments. That was 61 percent of all 167 accredited U.S. institutions of higher learning. As for the humanitarian sector, at that time, the end of WWII, there were about 1,000 International NGOs. Then, with the founding of the U.N. in 1945, came mega humanitarian agencies equipped with the teeth of international law and governmental regulatory powers, organizations such as UNICEF, UNESCO, FAO, WFP and the UNDP (United Nations Development Program).

Between 1950 and 1960, the number of international humanitarian organizations more than tripled. So did the number of anthropologists, most of whom were headed precisely for the field of humanitarian aid and development. By the 1980s there were more cultural anthropologists working in the humanitarian sector than any other area.[4]

But it still wasn’t enough. The demand for cultural anthropologists outstripped the supply and a big reason was because the humanitarian agencies thirsted for data. They needed researchers who understood how to gather and interpret cross-cultural data; and they needed the data so they could figure out what projects they should implement, how they should customize those projects, and to determine when or if projects worked. And not least of all, they had to show data to governments, philanthropic corporations and individuals who were paying for the aid projects. If they did not have data, they weren’t going to be getting any more money. And so, with that demand for data and explanations of what the data meant, the discipline of anthropology was becoming the science of the humanitarian sector and development.[5]

And it made all the sense in the world. One thing that made anthropology unique was that, unlike the other social sciences—such as sociology, economics, political science, social work, and psychology—anthropology focused on non-western “other” societies. It included the topics found in its sister social science disciplines, but it was cross-cultural. Earlier on, it involved the study of race, ancient civilizations and those societies that depended on technologies and political organizations less complex than Western nation-states. Cultural Anthropology claimed as its area of study hunters and gathers, chieftainships, peasants and all those pre-state societies that had a particularly strong presence in developing countries. This made anthropology uniquely suited to humanitarian aid and development. It was also an “-ology”, meaning a science and, in this case, “the science of humans.” As seen, the founding members defined the American Anthropological Association as created specifically, “to promote the science of anthropology.”

And up until the mid-1900s we anthropologists were doing a pretty good job of applying scientific strategies to unlock the riddles of culture and societal evolution. By the 1960s and 1970s we had documented the remarkable breadth of knowledge among hunters and gathers, those living “cave men,” some 800,000 of whom were, at that time, still surviving with the same stone-age technologies that our ancestors used 100,000 years in the past. Such insights helped anthropologists repudiate the genius theories of societal evolution and show that changes in technologies were better understood in terms of demographic pressure, declining living standards and access to resources. Humans were problem solvers who came up with more complex technologies and social structures not, as posited by Western-bound Sociology and History, so that we could escape the misery of savagery (as hunting and gathering had been assumed to be), but in trying to avoid the misery that awaited us as agriculturalists. With the categorization of different political and technology types, there also came understandings about how nation states emerged. Observations of living societies were correlated with findings from other sub-disciplines of anthropology, such as those from the archaeological and skeletal record left by our ancestors. Multi-faceted, scientifically sorted and vetted data allowed us to corroborate or disprove hypothesis and expand even further the breadth of our understanding of how societies change. Even in Haiti, where Schuller and I work, one did not have to look far for contributions from positivist anthropology, such as the work of Gerald Murray who over the course of 50 years produced at least 40 major studies on everything from Haiti’s inscrutable system of indigenous medical practitioners to seminal studies of the country’s internal marketing system, strategies rural Haitian children adopt to manage scarce nutritional resources, and the social factors that inhibit reforestation efforts.  It was an earnest application of the tools of science, i.e. hypothesis testing and statistical probability sampling. It was a search for laws and predictable patterns of behavior that could help us understand ourselves and help us better adapt to the increasing problems and complexities of the modern world. And it was, once again, the perfect field of science for humanitarian aid and development.

One of the professors whom I was closest to during my time at the University of Florida was Marvin Harris. AltaMara Press called him, “arguably the most influential, prolific anthropological theorist of our time.” At 33 years of age, Marvin had become Chair of the Anthropology Department at Columbia University (1963-66), the first and still most influential anthropology department in the United States. At 37 years of age he produced what is still the most cited history of anthropological theory that exists, The Rise of Anthropological Theory, or RAT as anthropology graduate students used to refer to it. He wrote two text books, one for cultural anthropology and one a general introduction to anthropology. Both experienced record length publishing careers, spanning 26 years (1971-1997), reaching 7 editions, and together they became the two most widely used anthropology text books in the United States. He wrote another 14 major books, many of them crafted for popular audiences, thereby sharing with the public insights that came from a science of culture. Two became New York Times best sellers and were translated into 16 languages.[6]

All of Marvin Harris’ undertakings were imbued with one poignant theme: the conviction that a science of culture was possible. In pursuit of this science of culture, other anthropologists came to consider Marvin the father of Cultural Materialism, a school of thought that, in abbreviated form, theoretically united many of the findings mentioned above, looking to demographics, technology, and the economy as primary determinants of cultural change and the source of differences between cultures. It’s a school of thought that, like all the social sciences, traces its roots straight back to Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Summing up Cultural Materialism, Harris prosaically said what most educated people in the world think is the main reason we support Universities that succor the development of -ologies like Anthropology:[6]

The reason that scientists favor knowledge produced in conformity with the epistemological principles of science is not because science guarantees absolute truth free of subjective bias, error, untruths, lies, and frauds, but because science is the best system yet devised for reducing subjective bias, error, untruths, lies, and frauds.[7]

It’s a no-brainer. It is science that gave us the automobile, jet planes, atomic energy, submarines, microchips, antibiotics, treatments for malaria and AIDS. It’s the scientific method and statistical techniques that made modern civilization possible. And because cultural anthropology used the tools of science to understand otherwise inexplicable human phenomenon—the emergence of state societies and civilization, factors underlying warfare, the impact of out-migration on the political and economic development of sending communities—Harris called anthropology the “science of history.” And because anthropology focused largely on societies in developing countries it was, as we have seen, logical that it was becoming the science of humanitarian aid and development, which in turn was that sector that promised to alleviate environmental devastation, educate the illiterate, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, cure the ill, make men and women equal and, not least of all, lead the economic development of remote societies to bring them more safely into the modern age. And, as also seen, it was doing just that. Anthropology was becoming the science of humanitarian aid and development.

But something happened in the 1980s. Right about the time that humanitarian aid was exploding in scope and anthropologists increasingly finding work in the field of development, the discipline of anthropology was undergoing a radical transition. Some still pursued scientific approaches. Methodologists such as Russell Bernard devised techniques for estimating unknown populations such as rape victims, those who are HIV-positive, and even the number of people killed in an earthquake. Steve Borgatti came up with user friendly computer programs that could precisely predict experts in any culture domain, be it an illiterate shaman and their capacity to identify unknown species of plants or animals or a modern expert in nuclear physics, all based on eliciting unknown lists of items. But overall there was a massive shift in the other direction. Instead of anthropologists pursuing science, many of them began to attack it. And this is where we begin to get back to Professor Schuller and the Great Haiti Earthquake Swindle, it was scholars like Schuller who helped destroy the credibility of anthropology as a science of development.

The anthropological movement against science was embodied in what became known as “Postmodernism.” For those familiar with the academic disciplines of history and literature, the Postmodernists were the anthropological version of de-constructionists. Early on, they identified language as a tool the elite used against the poor and that colonial powers used against non-Western countries to perpetuate their superiority and interests as they dominated and ruthlessly exploited them. The Postmodernists read culture like a multidimensional patterned narrative, all the while snooping out sexism and politically hegemonic discourse. The postmodernists also analyzed theories and practice. And because they saw the use of causal scientifically tested theories as tools of colonial exploitation, they were suspicious of them. They began to look at scientific theories of causation as futile in aiding the poor, indeed, immoral. As Marvin Harris himself mused,

Thus, postmodernists associate science and reason with the domination and oppression of totalitarian regimes. Since science searches for a “best answer,” it precludes diversity and leads to intolerance. In postmodern eyes, “reasonable” ways are always brutally unfair to somebody. Modernists, they claim, merely use science and reason to legitimate their preconceptions.[8]

Harris pointed out that Postmodern anthropology was very much like the liberal counterculture movement of hippies that coincided with its origins,

…postmodernists seek to replace science and reason with emotion, feeling, introspection, intuition, autonomy, creativity, imagination, fantasy, and contemplation. They favor the heart over the head, the spiritual over the mechanical, the personal over the impersonal.[9]

Had it only been a movement of thought, a reflexive look at just what anthropology was about and exploration of our errant ways, there would be nothing wrong with any of this. Postmodernism would have made valuable contributions to the continued growth of anthropology as the science of humanitarian aid. And indeed, most old school anthropologists thought that the Post-Modern critiques would pass. They thought that postmodernism would go away. But it did not go away. It got worse. Three years before his death, Marvin Harris bemoaned anthropology’s shift, “away from science-oriented processual approaches and toward an ‘anything goes postmodernism’” lamenting that, “I must confess that the turn theory has taken…. has been far more influential than I thought would be possible as I looked ahead from the end of the 1960s.” [10]

Although the positivists have never admitted defeat, mainstream anthropology veered radically away from statistical and quantifiable methodology. Anthropology became the discipline of deconstruction, symbolic analysis, identity, and more than anything else, activism. By the turn of the millennium, if you were enrolled in a U.S. university and decided that you wanted to be a practicing revolutionary, promote black nationalism, ethnic identity or you just wanted to be a community organizer, you would head to the anthropology department.

There are arguably very good political reasons why Postmodernism emerged, why it got funded and why it has survived. If the postmodernists could stop for a moment and deconstruct the emergence of their own movement, they may well conclude that anthropology’s veering away from science toward activism and promotion of ethnicity and identity serves the interests of the elites they abhor. The movement occurred at a time when progressive groups were mobilizing against big government and the conservative Christian establishment. The irony, however, is that the movement was funded and encouraged by the very bastions of conservatism that secular activism portended to challenge; specifically, organizations such as the Ford Foundation—from the 1960s until the 1990s, the largest funder of socially activist research—and U.S. government agencies such the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation. Through the funding of academics who became leaders in the florescence—rather than the amalgamation—of cultural identities and ethnicity, these institutions helped splinter the political opposition that threatened to upend the traditional power elites. Through funding for the study of identity, ethnicity and diversity, they helped to fracture opposition from a block of oppressed who could be politically united in a rainbow coalition into hundreds of camps of ethnically, ideologically and politically diversified groups. The political challenges that would come from a unified block of minorities, their ranks swelled with immigrants that could use the democratic process to gain access to power in the U.S. and Western Europe, was shattered.

Whether one agrees with the above logic or not, what concerns us here is that, in the end, instead of recognizing that the former anthropologists were biased and that what was needed—as Harris said—was “better science,” the postmodern activists decided that to change the world they had to “engage it”. Indeed, some might say, they decided they had to become like the enemy.  And so they politicized. The degree that this took hold in anthropology was such that in reviewing the state of Anthropology for year 2010—the year of the Haiti Earthquake–the discipline’s flagship journal of U.S. anthropology, the American Anthropologist, would begin their “Year in Review” article thus:

The question of whether or not engaged scholarship has won over anthropology has apparently been settled, with every corner of the discipline concretely confronting the politics of anthropological insight. [11].   see American Anthropologist 2011

In 2011 the AAA Executive Board stripped the word “science” from a draft statement of its long-range plan. Instead of a pledge “to promote the science of anthropology” anthropology became dedicated to “to advance scholarly understanding of humankind.”[12]  And so cultural anthropology shed its scientific identity and officially redefined itself as the discipline of activists.

All this bears directly on anthropologists such as Mark Schuller and what was going on in Haiti. For better or worse, Schuller was a quintessential expression of the repudiation of science and embracing of activism. For him, as with most activist-anthropologists, Schuller came to anthropology not as means for learning and understanding the world, so much as a mechanism to further his activism:

I became an anthropologist because of my experience as a grassroots organizer. Anthropology seemed to me then as it does now the academic discipline most capable of supporting long-lasting, grassroots social change.[13]               ¬[Schuller 2010: 43] 

The methods that Schuller and activists choose are not the same tools the scientific anthropologist uses in an attempt to achieve a measurable degree of objectivity. Indeed, Schuller’s interpretation of anthropological methods leaves them out altogether. Reminiscent of Marvin Harris description of the Postmodernist tools of intuition, in the words of Schuller, “Our core methodologies most resemble that of grassroots activism: participation, holistic listening, and a humanistic approach to caring, understanding, and working with real people.”

The priority was no longer on getting facts in an objective and controlled manner, but rather “engaging” and “empowering” the poor. Schuller recounts in his dissertation that after the popularly elected Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide was forced out of power for a second time, in February 29, 2004, Schuller corresponded with his doctoral committee back at the University of California:

The Haiti specialist on my committee, herself a founder of an NGO, was particularly adamant. “Your role in Haiti now is to simply observe and document. The time will come for your activism.” But I simply couldn’t resist. My little notes were read on community radio. I was part of a collective we called “Voices for Global Justice.” I imposed one condition: anonymity. The director of the radio station of course honored this request.[14]

For the scientist or even the ethical journalist, what Schuller admitted to above would either be a dirty little secret—an admission of bias, something to be controlled and repressed—or it would be an admission of having encountered a social or political affliction so outrageous that they were giving up on scholarship to become a political activist. The latter is certainly not a bad thing. Scholars have often done that in the past. When confronted with repressive political regimes such as the Nazis or Argentine military junta, many notable scholars dropped any pretense of objectivity and joined political opposition groups. But for the activist-anthropologist, the situation is the opposite. The activist anthropologist is already an activist. They become scholar in order to be more effective at activism. As seen, Schuller himself was not a scholar who became an activist, but an activist who became a scholar. And he did so precisely to be a more effective and respected activist. The extremity of the point is made by Schuller himself. He describes the transition from community organizer to scholar and the prestige that becoming a scholar brought with it:[15]

… I learned an important lesson. Because of the scholarly tone and its independence from activist groups, it [an article Schuller had written] was used by a wider audience than this union’s European solidarity partner… Had it been authored by the union, or the same group that publicized their efforts, or had it been written more like the activist action alerts that I cut my teeth on, it would have been easier to discredit, to marginalize, or to ignore.

In the meantime, I was becoming an anthropologist. As it turned out, it was more useful than being an organizer or activist to some NGOs and particular causes… I offered legitimacy that an “activist” would not have.[16]

                                 Interview with Mark Schuller,
                                 Anthropology of Contemporary Issues April 2012

And indeed, let there be no mistake, as Schuller states elsewhere,

All of my professional energy, my time, my Ph.D., my resources that I can bring to the table, the credibility that the doctorate brings and that the professorship brings, all of it is in the service of the people that I work with and the social justice vision that we share.[17]                                                                          [ibid]

Lest the absurdity of what Schuller is saying be missed, who are “the people” and how is it that Schuller comes to decide that he will work with them? And how do anthropologists like Schuller know that “the people” do indeed “share” the activist-anthropologist’s “social justice vision”? Do the people tell them so? A scientist would answer those questions by citing statistical tools for identifying the underprivileged, powerless and the poor. A scientist would cite statistically representative opinion polls or other mechanisms for attempting to objectively measure what “the people” want. But without those tools, and without understanding how to apply these tools, anyone can claim to be “the people” and anyone can solicit money for social justice and anyone, as seen in The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle, can make up claims of rampant child slavery, rape, violence, and massive orphan crisis.

Indeed, for anyone wanting to collect money in the name of the poor, the activist anthropologist is a perfect broker. And the reason is because their mission is not to separate truth from fiction but rather to represent those who want to get media attention and donations.[18] [19] [20] [21]

In 2013 Schuller and a co-editor Pablo Morales published a type of post-earthquake activist magnum opus entitled, Tectonic Shifts: Haiti since the Earthquake (Kumarian 2013).[22] It was an anthology composed of works, claims and data written by experts, most of whom egregiously misrepresented what is going on in Haiti after the earthquake and helped humanitarian agencies collect donations and fight human afflictions, many of which did not even exist. The book begins immediately with the declaration that 316,000 people were killed in the earthquake and one in seven of all Haitians were left homeless. Any serious evaluation of the data would put those figures at about 60,000 dead and one in fifty or fewer Haitians left without a home. The same baseless statistics are repeated over and over throughout the book, absurd claims such as 86 percent of all Port-au-Prince homes built since 1990 were destroyed, when in fact, technically, about 23 percent of all homes were destroyed in the earthquake, and 64 percent of those were re-inhabited in the first year following the earthquake. But the book is far more than just another recitation of bad data. The book gives the authors of the bad data a level of academic credibility they never could have achieved without the approval of someone such as Schuller, a University professor of an “-ology.”

How serious the book is taken by other professionals is not clear, for there are obvious contradictions with Schuller and Morales own claims of expertise and authenticity as well as those of many of the authors they showcase in their anthology.  In preparing the reader for this onslaught of statistically unsubstantiated claims by activist-scholars, Schuller and Morales rather quixotically proclaim that they are facilitating a new perspective, lamenting that “The points of view presented to date [elsewhere] are dominated by white, foreign do-gooders, either volunteer missions or professional humanitarians” (ibid:3). Schuller and Morales—both white, non-Haitians working in the humanitarian aid sector—then go on to present the forty-six “scholars, journalists, and activists” who make their book different, thirty-three of whom are also foreign, white, and whom we can infer are “do-gooders”, and all whom either have an activist agenda and/or little to no academic experience studying Haiti or field experience in Haiti prior to the earthquake.

Among the thirteen authentic Haitian contributors to Schuller and Morales anthology are Mario Joseph, leader of the IJDH, an organization founded by deposed president Aristide’s lawyers and wife, that has been the fulcrum for activism against the political right, and that has manufactured what may be largely false accusations of politically motivated rape for over 20 years. Another is Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique—anthropologist and self-defined vodou priestess who also happens to be the daughter of Max Beauvoir, an MIT chemist and vodou priest who convinced Harvard anthropologists Richard Evans Schultes and his PhD student Wade Davis that zombies exist, something that other scholars unanimously dismissed.[23] Indeed, Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique is the very person who, at sixteen years of age, acted as Wade Davis’s guide and translator as he went around and collected what real scientists unanimously dismissed as bogus zombification powders. And there is Marie Eramithe Delva and Mayla Villard-Appolon,  founders of an organization called KOFAVIV, source of data for post-earthquake rape epidemic that leaders of Haiti’s mainstream feminists organizations insist did not exist.[25] [26]


I want to make it clear that I do not object to activism. I don’t even object to zombie powders. There is nothing wrong with taking a stance for social justice—however one might define it—and nothing wrong with believing in the supernatural. Nor do I have anything personally against Schuller. But I do and am objecting to exploitation of the role of scholar, usurping that role, and misleading those who work in NGOs—many of whom are genuinely searching for ways to effectively aid the poor. Those academics like Schuller who have done this, who have deliberately politicized their scholarship while trying to usurp the tools of science and replace them with their intuition, have given credibility to voices of con-artists and frauds. In doing this, Schuller and pseudo-scholars like him have elevated these people to the status of experts and legitimate sources of data for researchers and journalists, people who, in a developed country, might well be imprisoned for fraud and embezzling funds meant for the poor. In this way activist pseudo-scholars such as Mark Schuller have accomplished the opposite of what they claim to have set out to do. Without the tools of science to guide them, and by indiscriminately latching onto numbers that support their arguments, they not only have gotten duped and, by consequence participated in duping sincere NGO workers and the public who count on their scholarship and credibility to get us accurate information and help us to help the poor, they have legitimized the work of the multinational corporate aid agencies they seek to expose. They rubber stamped the bogus data the agencies needed to justify their donations and expenditures. From a fictitious rape epidemic, to 100s of thousands of ‘child slaves’, to unrealistically high numbers of collapsed buildings, to impossibly high number of IDPs, the 2010 Haiti earthquake should have exposed the duplicity and failure of the aid sector. In the words of Roger Annis who critiqued the present article,

That failure is longstanding, but was greatly accentuated by the 2010 earthquake. Didn’t the earthquake lift the carefully constructed veil of secrecy over the decades and two centuries of imperialist plunder of Haiti? And wasn’t  the imperialist world obliged, in consequence, to perform all manner of mea culpa and even promises to ‘build back better’

The earthquake did lift the ‘veil’, but only momentarily. Indeed, using data such as that approved by Schuller and Morales in Tectonic Shifts, the aid agencies were able to collect billions of dollars for social afflictions that either did not exist or were radically misunderstood. Not surprisingly, the money was largely squandered. And of course it was squandered. As I point out in Swindle, ‘

If they did not know what the problems are when they collected the money, if in the pursuit of the money they so twisted, garbled and lied about what the ailments are in Haiti that those ailments no longer resemble reality, there is no way that once they have the money they can effectively accomplish anything. One cannot solve a problem if one doesn’t’ know what it is. One can’t solve a problem if it doesn’t exist. One cannot solve real problems if one is busy solving phantom problems. One cannot solve problems if con artists have pumped you full of lies and absconded with all the money.  [The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle: 297]

And this brings us to the gist of my point when I began this article: while the scientific method and statistical research tools have enabled us to reach a point where we are capable of mapping the 3-billion pair Human genome, and has us mapping the surface of other planets and searching for life in faraway galaxies, activist anthropologists such as Schuller–who reject the tools of science and/or replace them with pseudo science and poorly gathered and unsupportable data–have helped to make the problems that confront our impoverished fellow humans increasingly inscrutable and solving poverty an increasingly remote possibility. The usurpation of anthropology by anti-science activists who irresponsibly use and exploit figures has given multinational corporate aid agencies and elite special interest groups bent on undermining true economic and social development the bogus information they need to justify their waste and cover-up their failures. Similarly, by supplanting the authority of science and robust statistical methodologies, activist pseudo-scholars have undermined one of the most critical resources that responsible journalists traditionally depended on to identify valid data. And in the end, they have helped to all but eliminate anthropology as the science of humanitarian aid.[27] [28]


[1] In the wake of the earthquake Mark Schuller Ph.D. became a widely published spokesman for Haiti earthquake survivors, particularly those living in camps. Schuller is, like me, a cultural anthropologist. That means he studies society and, more specifically, the social behavior of people and institutions found in developing countries. An expert on cross-cultural understanding, Schuller was, in the years following the earthquake, a member of nine professional anthropology associations. He had published two dozen chapters in anthologies and peer-reviewed articles, authored two books of his own, and co-edited five more. In 2006 he was a third-prize winner of an award from the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology. In 2015 he was winner of the American Anthropological Associations prestigious Margaret Mead Award, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on an anthropologist. As I write this, in 2017, he is currently on the faculty at Northern Illinois University where he identifies himself as a “Professor of NGOs.” In the wake of the 2010 earthquake, there seemingly could have been no more qualified scholar than Mark Schuller to get us the truth about what was going on in post-earthquake Haiti. And Schuller, seemingly, set out to do just that.

Professor Schuller put his authority as an award-winning scholar to work drawing attention to the plight of those living in camps. Recognizing his merits, the U.S. National Science Foundation gave him $111,005 to conduct surveys in the camps. IOM, that entity responsible for coordinating aid to the camps, depended on Schuller’s research to help guide their policies. And three times in two years Professor Schuller went to Washington, D.C. as an expert witness for congressional committees on aid to people living in Haiti’s camps. He was also an instrumental contributor to “Where did all the Money Go?” a documentary that highlighted the extent to which the NGOs had failed to provide services to people in the post-earthquake camps. The documentary aired on PBS and won the 2013 Edward R. Murrow Award for News Documentary.

So, Professor Schuller was clearly very busy in the year after the earthquake ostensibly doing what a scholar anthropologist and expert on Haiti should have been doing: getting accurate information to the overseas public. And all that sounds great. Except, as recounted in this paper, Professor Schuller is a new breed of anthropologist, one bent on upending what they see as a repressive world order and making the planet a better place for all, especially the poor. These new scholars define themselves as “activists-anthropologists” who are “engaged” and “politicized.” They have self-appointed themselves as defenders and advocates of the poor. And the problem with that is that it is not clear how they define “social justice.” Worse, for the poor, their strategies for achieving whatever “social justice” is has little to do with rigorous scientific methods and accurate data. Indeed, as I explain, to achieve social decisions, they seek information not so much for accuracy but to win support for their “social justice” agenda.

[2] Some of the places that Schuller put his blog:

Schuller, Mark. 2011. “Smoke and Mirrors: Deflecting Attention Away From Failure in Haiti’s IDP Camps,” Huffington Post, December 22.

Schuller, Mark. 2011. “Smoke and Mirrors in Haiti,” Counterpunch, December 21.

Schuller, Mark. 2011. “DP camps are filled with ‘real’ people,” Boston Haitian, December 9.

Schuller, Mark. 2011. “Smoke and Mirrors in Haiti Deflecting Attention away from Failure in the IDP Camps,” Haiti Dreams website. December 28,

[3] Specifically, it was an attack on science and statistical methods as a way of knowing the truth. For despite the fact that today Professor Schuller was funded by the National Science Foundation to conduct surveys in Haiti and used the data to inform the U.S. government, the academics, and donors about what is going on in Haiti, Professor Schuller and the majority of anthropologists working in the field today do not prioritize objective information that can help inform decision makers in their pursuit of effective aid programs. Most, including Schuller, rail against it. As I recount, in their academic articles they dismiss the tools of science as part of a repressive world order.

[4] For a summary of history of International NGOs, see: Davies, Thomas Richard. 2008.  “The Rise And Fall Of Transnational Civil Society: The Evolution Of International Non-Governmental Organizations Since 1839.” Working Papers On Transnational Politics. City University London Centre For International Politics.

For the evolution of anthropology in the U.S., see:  Cooper, John M. 1947. “Anthropology in the United States during 1939-1945.” Journal de la Société des Américanistes. Tome  36, 1947. pp. 1-14

[5]  What I’m saying and about to describe is not an accusation. It’s a description of a theoretical position and a strategy to make the world a better place. Part of what activist journalist Kim Ives has called “the fight in the information and ideological war that is a hallmark of the class struggle in our age.”  Why it so concerns us here is that the struggle strikes at the very heart of why so few scholars were vetting the data coming out of Haiti, exposing the exaggerations and lies and sobering the press and their sensationalism. Indeed, while a minority of activist-journalists have insisted on credible data and mechanisms for vetting the data—the just mentioned Kim Ives is one of them— scholars like Schuller have been doing the opposite. They uncritically approve, twist and even manufacture data to support their social justice agendas and, in doing so, they have enable the misinformation campaigns that I documents in this The Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle.

[6]   For a summary of Harris major works synopsis of his impact, see:

[7] Harris, Marvin. (1998-10-16). Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times (Communities) (Kindle Locations 1929-1930). AltaMira Press. Kindle Edition.

[8] Because of this, Harris mused, “A peculiar terror seems to grip postmodernists at the mere mention of the word cause.” On page 159 of Harris, Marvin (1998-10-16). Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times (Communities) (pp. 153-154). AltaMira Press. Kindle Edition.

[9] Harris, Marvin. (1998-10-16). Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times (Communities) (Kindle Locations 1929-1930). AltaMira Press. Kindle Edition.

[10]   Harris, Marvin. 1998. Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times (Communities) (pp. 153-154). AltaMira Press. Kindle Edition.

[11] Ironically the attacks came most strongly from the extreme materialist corner of the field, archaeology, that discipline that we would intuitively expect to be most committed to science. Instead, an increasing number of theorists among them threw up their hands, said that any interpretations about what was found buried in the ground was mostly determined by what the society wanted to see. And to a large degree they were right. But using that a basis to forego excavations and engage in ‘empowering’ the repressed through manipulation of the truth is, I would argue, not the appropriate response. The appropriate response is, as Harris said, ‘better science.’  Put another way, an appropriate response is promotion of tools that impose objectivity and lay down the rules for discourse that can break through the hegemony of the elite and help us better understand how to adapt and resolve the social inequities that cause people to remain poor, or at the very least, alleviate the afflictions of poverty.

[11] A more complete version of the quote:

Nearly every scholar has become politicized in the past decade or so…  A vast breadth of interdisciplinary researchers have embraced the notion of an “engaged scholarship” that consciously or unwittingly borrows from threads of publicanthropological (sic) discourses that reach back into the 1960s, if not a century or more. The question of whether or not engaged scholarship has won over anthropology has apparently been settled, with every corner of the discipline concretely confronting the politics of anthropological insight.

Mullins, PR.  2011. “Practicing Anthropology and the Politics of Engagement: 2010 Year in Review.” American Anthropologist, Vol. 113, No. 2, pp. 235–245,  ISSN 0002-7294, online ISSN 1548-1433. c_ 2011 by the American Anthropological Association.  All rights  reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2011.01327.x

[12]  After many objections from those anthropologists who do support a scientific approach, and perhaps a realization among those who abhor science that they would discredit themselves and diminish their status as scholars, the new mission statement added, “The strength of Anthropology lies in its distinctive position at the nexus of the sciences and humanities” and declared:

The purpose of the Association shall be to advance scholarly understanding of humankind in all its aspects … drawing from and building upon knowledge from biological and physical sciences as well as the humanities and social sciences.

See, AAA Executive Board. 2011. AAA LONG-RANGE PLAN As Amended by the AAA Executive Board, May 4, 2011, American Anthropological Association

[13] See, Schuller, Mark. 2010. “From Activist to Applied Anthropologist to Anthropologist? On the Politics of Collaboration,”  In Practicing Anthropology. Winter. Vol. 32, No. 1. Page 43

[14] For Schuller’s Ph.D. Dissertation, See: Schuller, Mark. 2007. “Killing with Kindness? Impacts of International Development Aid on Participation and Autonomy within Women’s NGOs in Post-Coup Haiti. A Dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology.” University of California: Santa Barbara.

[15] The very month of the earthquake, January 2010, in the Journal Practicing Anthropology, Schuller published a personal ode to anthropological-activism entitled, “From Activist to Applied Anthropologist to Anthropologist? On the Politics of Collaboration,” in which he declared that:

I stand humbly on the shoulders of giants …  continuing an activist anthropology grounded in social justice and focused on how inequalities are begun and maintained through institutional means, in my case international development agencies.

See, Schuller, Mark. 2010. “From Activist to Applied Anthropologist to Anthropologist?
On the Politics of Collaboration,”  In Practicing Anthropology. Winter. Vol. 32, No. 1.

[16] Some more excerpts that highlight Schuller’s willingness to use the role of scholar to further an activist agenda to the extent some might even call subversive:

And in the end, my role as a scholar may allow me greater freedom to collaborate with people across this bitter sectarian divide…..

… being an individual scholar, not encumbered by bad blood and a personal history, I could tell one person that I was working with someone that she or he reviled, and they respected that. As an individual scholar I have the freedom to collaborate with whomever I choose, even people on opposing sides of a particular political struggle.

The key for “activist” is just studying these “equalities.”  It’s changing them.  Schuller sums up his position on the utility of anthropology as an instrument of activism with recommendations to other anthropologists. He begins:

Everything is based on relationships and negotiations. Sometimes we have to put our own politics or analysis aside to be able to work in collaboration, to empower others.

So they in fact have politics but are willing to put them aside to empower.  The second recommendation:

We need to be comfortable taking the back seat to activist groups. We need to ask, how we can be helpful and not assume what role is appropriate.

And a third recommendation is, a significant arm in the arsenal of the activist is the media, something that the anthropologist, as scholar has special access to:

We need to limit the jargon and get to the point: the New York Times gives 250 words, or if we’re very lucky, 500.

See, See, Schuller, Mark. 2010. “From Activist to Applied Anthropologist to Anthropologist? On the Politics of Collaboration,”  Practicing Anthropology. Winter. Vol. 32, No. 1.

[17] See Interview with Mark Schuller, Anthropology of Contemporary Issues. April 2012

[18] Let me rephrase here what I say in the main text because the activist anthropologist who goes to the field invariably comes to the realization that without at least pretending they have done surveys, without being able to cite numbers and statistics no one in the world of development takes them seriously. Sitting back and saying you are a champion of “social justice” doesn’t satisfy those who will fund, or have funded, your research, or readers, or students.  You’ve got to be able to at least pretend that you’re demonstrating what social justice is composed of.  And that’s where the lies begin because to do that you need numbers. To get into the field, to get hired, and to convince people that you’re right about social justice and the afflictions of the repressed, the activist has to, at some point, pretend they are producing something scientific.  And so at the same time that Schuller was slamming the BARR and me personally for being “disrespectful” because I counted the dead and estimated how many people were “real IDPs,”  Schuller won a grant from the National Science foundation to do surveys in Haiti. This was a “scholar” who had never written anything on scientific survey methods, never included a discussion of scientific survey methods in any academic article he wrote, who had written two entire books without mentioning the word methodology or statistics or survey except to disparage them, and who may have never taken any courses other than Introduction to Statistics—something that every University requires of those studying to become social scientists. As seen, he went on to use the data from the surveys to present to U.S. congressional committees and argue that there really were over 1 million IDPs in Haiti. He was using that data to “prove”—his word— that all but 3.5 percent of those people in Haitian camps were “real IDPs.” He would do things like recklessly cite IOM surveys claiming that 70 to 85 percent of people in Port-au-Prince had been renters before the earthquake—when in fact real surveys indicated that 50 to 60 percent owned their own home. But perhaps more devastating than anything else to the pursuit of truth and accuracy in numbers and trying to understand just what the hell was going on in post- earthquake Haiti, Schuller went around rubber stamping with scholarly approval the exaggerations and outright lies seen in earlier chapters, as per his edited anthology, Tectonic Shifts.

[19] In some ways what Schuller and thousands of anthropologists like him are doing is similar to the advocate journalists who pretend to be writing objective news when in fact their priority is not accurate reporting, but rather discrediting the opposition. Indeed, Schuller and the other activist scholars I discuss below also publish as journalists with a definitive bent on promoting, under the guise of journalistic objectivity, their ‘social justice’ agendas. But their impact as scholars is even more devastating. Assuming the role of scholar while rejecting tools that can give you at least some means to strive for objectivity is worse than simply assuming you intuitively know what’s good for rest of us and trying to disingenuously dupe donor into agreeing with you. What the activist-anthropologists are doing is more than pretending. On the one hand they attack the tools of science and reason, but they then assume the positions of scholars and professors, exactly those people we all expect to be experts in the application of the tools of science. Unwitting NGO clients hire them assuming that, as social scientists, they must be masters of those scientific methodologies that will allow them to better understand the effectiveness of different development strategies.

[20] At the same time, Schuller also began teaching “methodology” courses to unwitting Haitian University students.   In June 2011 Schuller began an NSF-funded research project of eight IDP camps.  And he went on to used students to whom he had taught a “research methods seminar.”

[21] But whenever one takes sides and becomes critical of others there is the major question, how do they decide who is right?  For the new anthropologists the answer has nothing to do with statistics or methods. It does not even have anything to do with counting the number of people who have one opinion vs. another (albeit Schuller and other activists have increasingly done (rather sloppily) exactly this in an effort to justify their own agendas). For the new anthropologists, the answer has to do with discourse, democracy, empowerment, all nebulous concepts with no criteria determining if the people engaged are pretending, lying, trying to enrich themselves and embezzle aid money. So in other words, Schuller decides when he’s right. Or the people he hangs out with and who sway his opinion.

[22]  Schuller, Mark and Pablo Morales, eds. 2013. Tectonic Shifts: Haiti since the   Earthquake. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press. Haitian Creole edition.

[23] For a summary of Wade Davis and the absurdity and lack of academic credibility for the Haiti zombie phenomenon, see the See Great Haiti Humanitarian Aid Swindle page 37.

[24] Schuller’s work can be summarized as, on the one hand, community organizer and advocate of the poor and, on the other hand, the full-fruition of the anthropological “giants” on whose shoulders Schuller claims to stand, those who paved the way for him by destroying anthropology as the emerging science of humanitarian aid and development.

[25] The most scientifically reputable of all the scholars in Schuller and Morale’s anthology is another former professor of mine, Anthony Oliver-Smith, who never mentioned Haiti in any of the three classes I took with him. The reason he never mentioned Haiti is that prior to being invited to contribute to Schuller’s anthology, Professor Oliver-Smith had never studied nor written anything at all about Haiti. Indeed, to my knowledge he has never even visited Haiti.

[26] While I may be beating a dead horse, the issue is so important to me and, I believe, so critical to the humanitarian mission of resolving the poverty conundrum that I don’t want to leave any nuance unexplained: There is, once again, nothing wrong with activism, and certainly nothing wrong with Schuller accusing international development agencies of maintaining inequalities.  The problem is that Schuller, as with most activist-anthropologists, is hiding behind scholarship. They are pretending to be something they are not. Most of the world outside of anthropology didn’t and does not know about their agenda. Most NGO directors don’t read the anthropology journals and when they hire activists such as Mark Schuller, they don’t know that he is a guided by an ill-defined social justice agenda that puts data and scientific discrimination of facts second to agenda crafted myths. The activist-anthropologist disingenuously maintains the appearance that he or she is an adherent to a discipline of methods, often wrongly citing numbers and statistics, as Schuller himself was so wont to do in the wake of the earthquake, and indiscriminately endorsing anyone who appears to have data supporting their cause. They have tried to preserve the respect among humanitarian aid agencies for scholarship, while they in fact reject the most powerful tools of the academy, science and its methods.

[27] The situation is such that 30 years ago all USAID missions had a resident anthropologist who specialized in the country where the mission was located. Today one is hard pressed to find anthropologists working in them.