Brian Concannon and Mario Joseph
Brian Concannon, left, with Mario Joseph, managing attorney for the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Haiti.

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It was already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti six years ago. At Whitman, a workshop on human rights advocacy raises tough questions about aid accountability.

When lawyer and activist Brian Concannon arrived on campus earlier this year to lead a one-credit course called Human Rights Advocacy: How and Why, it felt like familiar terrain for him. A graduate of Middlebury College and Georgetown Law who currently serves as executive director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), Concannon had little teaching experience to speak of—yet as far as the Socratic ethos of the liberal arts is concerned, he fit right in.

"One of the things that I was a bit worried about coming in was whether students would be engaged in the discussions, and what I’d have to do to get everybody involved," said Concannon, whose stay was sponsored by the O’Donnell Visiting Educators program, with support from the Ashton J. and Virginia Graham O'Donnell Endowed Chair in Global Studies Endowment. 

That wasn’t a problem, as he soon found out: “Right from the beginning, they were asking great questions. They were motivated, deeply thoughtful and willing to stretch themselves to participate in class discussions. The very first class, there was some interesting talk about aid accountability, which is a really big deal in Haiti.”

If anyone off the island can appreciate just how big a deal, it’s Concannon. He’s been advocating for human rights issues in Haiti for more than 20 years, beginning as a United Nations Human Rights Officer in the mid-1990s before spending eight years in the capital Port-au-Prince as co-manager of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux. He left to found its American affiliate, the IJDH, in 2004, after a coup d’état overthrew then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. When the devastating earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010, foreign aid poured in, but the outcomes have not always been positive.

For instance, all of the food aid donated by NGOs meant Haitian farmers had harvests they couldn’t sell, which hampered their ability to produce crops for the following year. A similar phenomenon befell local doctors.

“On the medical end, an amazingly generous group of healthcare workers from the U.S. went down and volunteered their time, took their vacation time and did a lot of great work and saved a lot of lives,” Concannon explained.

“But at the same time, they displaced the Haitian medical professionals who better understood the context and had skills that the foreign medical workers didn't have, and who were going to be there the next year."

He recalled how one local hospital, which had opened right before the earthquake hit, was put out of business because it couldn’t compete with the influx of foreign aid groups offering free temporary healthcare.

“It’s a little bit counterintuitive, but what some of those medical people should have been doing instead of coming themselves was to find ways of getting money to the Haitian medical workers. It’s good for people to say 'here's a need, I've got a skill, I can fill it.’ I think that's an impulse that should be encouraged," said Concannon.

"But I think you need to have a secondary impulse of 'how is this going to work in terms of sustainability—am I really helping in the long term?' A lot of times things that we think are a good idea to do when we're in Walla Walla or Boston aren't that good when we think about the long-term impact."  

This year is off to a turbulent start for Haiti. With the deadline to elect a new president long since passed, protests have persisted in Port-au-Prince and a runoff election originally scheduled for late December has been postponed indefinitely. A tireless advocate for fair elections, Concannon has since been quoted in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald and PRI, among other news outlets reporting on the ongoing political crisis.

In an op-ed published soon after his visit in Whitman’s student newspaper, The Pioneer, politics major Katy Willis ’16 wrote she was initially “skeptical” about Concannon’s workshop, which focused on NGOs.

“I wasn’t interested in being taught by some white man wrapped up in a white savior complex, proud of himself for being so invested in the lives of poor black people,” she said. “But I was curious… I envisioned the most prominent U.S. lawyer for human rights in Haiti to be big and loud and oozing with self-importance. I expected someone who schmoozes—or at least has an obvious ego. That’s not Brian.”

Noah Leavitt, associate dean for student engagement and pre-law advisor, described Concannon as an ally who “understands and works on cases that are about empowering Haitian citizens to have as much control over their own country as possible.” 

“Brian is a great resource to understand Haiti from the standpoint of what the O’Donnell Global Studies Initiative strives to do, which is to have students meet practitioners who are out there in the world.”

In fact, Concannon has frequently spoken out against the inefficiency inherent in some international aid projects, especially those undertaken by outside groups without consulting the Haitian people. Still, when it comes to supporting developing nations like Haiti, he maintains, "You are almost guaranteed to make mistakes.” That doesn't mean Whitman alumni and others interested in helping should give up.  

"Look for sustainability," he stressed. "If you're going to support an organization—send them a $25 check, or volunteer—make sure that organization is serious about sustainability.”

Concannon’s organization prides itself on partnering with grassroots movements in poor neighborhoods, while flexing its legal muscles in both Haitian and international courts. Recently, it has drawn widespread media attention for attempting to sue the United Nations for their role in inadvertently introducing cholera into the country in the aftermath of the earthquake—perhaps the most glaring example in recent history of good intentions gone disastrously awry.

Prior to the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops from Nepal, where cholera is endemic, no presence of the disease had ever been recorded in Haiti. Now, an estimated eight percent of the population has fallen ill, and more than 9,000 have died—a figure Doctors Without Borders considers conservative. For comparison, the freshly contained Ebola epidemic that ravaged West Africa killed about 11,000 across three countries.

Haiti’s fatal outbreak has been traced back to poor sanitation practices at a U.N. base along the Artibonite River, the country’s main artery; DNA analysis suggests it may have started with a single infected, asymptomatic Nepalese peacekeeper unwittingly carrying the bacteria. Cholera, which causes severe dehydration and can be deadly without rapid intervention, is transmitted through contaminated water. Because the pathogen was previously absent from Haiti, its people had no “herd immunity” and were therefore particularly susceptible.

According to a new report in The Guardian, the U.N. could have avoided the spread with a $2,000 health kit, basic screenings and preventative antibiotics for outbound peacekeepers. Eradicating the disease now will likely cost the global community more than $2 billion.

In the class-action lawsuit Concannon’s legal team brought on behalf of 5,000 cholera victims, they demand the installation of a national water and sanitation system, reparations for affected families and a public apology for the plaintiffs. So far, none of these has been forthcoming; last year, a federal district judge ruled in favor of the U.N., which denies responsibility for the outbreak, citing diplomatic immunity. The IJDH is in the process of appealing.

“There’s always a risk that if you criticize things that are done poorly, that’s going to make people think ‘okay, it’s hopeless. There’s nothing I can do,’” Concannon said.  “I think it’s important to say that you can do things the right way and you can make a positive impact, and I think the first step to that is really what [Whitman students] are doing, which is asking questions.”

Brynn Walund '16, a biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology major, was one of the 12 students who completed Concannon’s weeklong course.

“He really could have held us there for at least two weeks, just talking to us about life and the world, and I’d have gone every day,” she said. “My main takeaways were some notes on other NGOs to look at, and a really critical view on where money is spent and what the most sustainable approaches are."

As part of his tenure as visiting educator, Concannon also tackled the mass deportations of Haitians and Dominicans with Haitian ancestry from the neighboring Dominican Republic, a controversial subject with ties to Brother, I’m Dying, the 2015 Whitman Summer Read selection by Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat.

“These are topics that a number of courses across campus have been taking up, and the particular example of the Dominican Republic deportation crisis is both urgent in itself, and instructive as a point of comparison for students interested in migration, law, and the relationship between national and international structures and politics,” said Nicole Simek, associate professor of French and Concannon's faculty sponsor.  

Last September, Danticat came to Whitman to discuss her 2007 memoir, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, which addresses the emotional impact of immigration to America on her family. Concannon’s timely lecture dealt with the ongoing tensions surrounding policies in the Dominican Republic that demand anyone of Haitian descent prove Dominican birth or face deportation. 

"I thought about all of the creative human rights activists with expertise in the issues discussed in the book, and Brian, with his extraordinary track record on a variety of innovative Haiti-focused advocacy campaigns, was the obvious person to reach out to first,” said Leavitt, who helped arrange Concannon’s visit to the college. 

Simek agreed, "I'm very happy that we had the chance to bring Brian to campus to extend discussions about Haiti, human rights, immigration and advocacy that have been happening in conjunction with Summer Read. I think students were also interested to hear Brian's perspective on the role of the liberal arts in his trajectory, and the different paths that a liberal arts education opens up.”

As events in Haiti continue to unfold and the future remains uncertain, Concannon said he was pleased to see Whitman students engaging so critically with the complexities of foreign aid and advocacy work.  

"A lot of people are interested in getting involved, and it was good to see people having very critical and thoughtful discussions about how they could best fit in, whether they could really do something useful," he added. 

"Most of the people that are doing development work in Haiti don't even ask themselves that question—they sort of assume they're doing the right thing. I think a lot of people come to it and they say 'well, I've got the right motives, therefore whatever I do must be the right thing.' And I think that can be very dangerous. So it was exciting on a bunch of levels to see the Whitman students asking those hard questions of themselves and of the development community."