I’m writing a chapter in my dissertation about the role of the Rockefeller Foundation during the US occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). The RF was rather reluctant to engage with the US Navy in Haiti, and so brushed off several requests coming from the Brigade Commander’s office through various health services personnel. But in 1921, after the Senate Inquiry into the Occupation of Haiti exposed the failures of the occupation, a new imperative to provide humanitarian assistance was initiated. When the High Commissioner to Haiti, General Russell, was gently brushed off, again, in 1921, a flurry of correspondence ensued – escalating through the ranks of both the RF and the US State Department. The letters are missing from the RF Archives in Sleepy Hollow, but there are tiny cross-reference slips that have some notes about what they contained. Unfortunately, the full content appears to be lost forever, leaving gaping questions about what transpired. The RF landed in Haiti in 1923 and made continual returns and investments until 1930, after the Forbes Commission suggested the US Navy  withdraw.

There are generally two lines of argumentation that historians of the RF take. One tends to be rather damningly suspicious, pointing to the RF’s International Health Board as an extension of imperial designs that sought to inculcate “backward” countries with a particular set of “civilizational” mores (Hewa, 1995; Solórzano, 1992; Brown, 1976) . Others, more recently, have tended toward a more nuanced approach to the IHB – one that seeks to tease out the complexities of the relationship of health to globalization (Palmer and Peña Torres, 2008; Birn, 2006;  Farley, 2003). That the RF made it a point imperative to not appear to be agents of US foreign diplomacy is often repeated. And yet, the RF IHB originally worked with the colonial administrative offices of Great Britain in their first round of global hookworm eradication, unleashing their new brand of global health on British colonies, particularly in the Caribbean (see for instance: Palmer, 2010). So is it such a far stretch to presume some imperial designs? Or at least benevolence in the service of Empire?

I was recently describing to a friend an upcoming Themed Issue in Environment and Planning A of which i and two colleagues Léonie Newhouse (PSU) and Lisa Bhungalia (Syracuse) are editors. It is a collection of critical humanitarian case studies across the globe in the 20th and 21st centuries. As i explained a few of the papers to the friend, he gave me a rather “knowing” look, “Well, that doesn’t sound very balanced.” I was so thoroughly confused by his comment that i simply didn’t know how to respond. It’s not the first time someone has confused Geography with journalism in casual conversation, but what struck me was the vehemence with which he presumed that we were beholden to give what he perceived to be equal coverage to the good and bad (meaning 50-50, not actually balanced toward our findings).  

The case of Haiti is rather stark. For all of the military, governmental, non-governmental, and other organizational intercessions into the country, we still hear the weary trope that “Haiti has the poorest health indices of the western hemisphere.” When the earthquake occurred in January 2010, there was a gleeful global chorus about the opportunity to “Build Back Better!” As i stepped into my dissertation project (and clearly, what will be my life’s work), i began with the question, “Build back better than what?” For all of the interventions that have occurred, Haiti, in the estimation of those who intervened, should be a bastion of civil, political, and economic power in the Caribbean. And as i struggle to disentangle the myth (undergirded by a sensibility of US exceptionalism) of these interventions, it becomes more difficult to find actual benevolence. As Nikhil Singh (2006) has pointed out, these forms of benevolent intervention belie “the harshest versions of white supremacy.” And if that is the starting point for researching the RF’s IHB projects, then why are we still trying to soften the appearance of development?

Clearly, we none of us live in a black and white world. There are no clear lines demarcating the Bad Guys. That would be a naive and irresponsible way to approach anything in life, most particularly research. And as i furiously struggle to make a more nuanced argument about the role of the RF in Haiti, i catch myself wondering about the broader implications that the urge to be “fair.” Arturo Escobar perhaps put it best when he posed his puzzlement aloud about the “presumed ineluctability” of Development. Despite the kind work of individuals, we cannot simply ignore the disaster that unfolded after the earthquake that was the stunning legacy of so much (failed) intervention. To understand how so much devastation occurred requires a close examination of the multiple failures that began with an arrogant dream and turned into a nightmare that slowly unfolded over 100 years (Escobar 2011, 4).