What’s Wrong with Haiti? Politics, Development, and Discourse in Port-au-Prince

This dissertation examines the pragmatic effects of discourse about development in Haiti. It focuses on discussions within and beyond two development organizations operating in Port-au- Prince, revealing the ways in which politics and development are intimately entangled. Attention to the idea of development and its associated practices are a common feature of everyday interactions and often seek to address the question of “What’s wrong with Haiti?” Much as this question implies failure, discussions on the topic of development attempt to diagnose deficiencies, identify historical causes, and imagine solutions in the form of directed social change. Development serves as a temporal frame through which ideas about action, agency, and causality are embedded. Highlighting a need for social improvement, development also represents a moral obligation. Debates attending to past development failures and future efforts often work to allocate responsibility in particular ways.

I argue that discourses about development represent a form of political contestation. In contrast to research focused on “development discourse” as a dominant ideology, I draw on linguistic anthropological conceptions of language as a form of social action. By attending to language and discourse in specific social settings, I investigate the manner in which different sites of deliberation represent sites of the political. Through discussions and debates about development, participants actively negotiate social relations, taking part in establishing, asserting, challenging and reinforcing power and status differences in relation to both their immediate interlocutors as well as the political power holders they seek to address.