By Simon M. Fass
Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J. 1990
ISBN: 0-88738-855-8 (paper) $20.00

Reviewed by Bob Corbett

Most scholarly works on Haiti make it sound as though Haiti has a population of 500 or 1000 people. Only the politically active, economic elite, and their foreign associates seem to exist and to make history.

Where are Haiti's 6 million people? Where are the common folk, those tens of thousands one sees daily hustling the streets of Port-au-Prince, creating the din of the capital? Simon Fass brings them to us in their particularity and captures their impact on the political economy of everyday survival.

One of the most common impressions of first time visitors to Port-au-Prince is the constant activity, the hustle-bustle. Everyone seems to be doing something, going somewhere, selling odds and ends, making this or that on the street, cooking, shelling peanuts, hawking paintings. This impression contrasts sharply with the often cited statistic that as many as 80% of the population of Port-au-Prince is unemployed. I think I've even cited this figure myself in a talk here or there.

Haiti is so poor, so culturally different from our experience that our visitors often discuss what life must be like in the slums of Boston or Brooklyn (Haiti). We visit; we experience the stench, the mud, the slimy open sewers, the swarms of flies. We see the naked children with distended stomachs; we meet the kind and smiling people at Dianne's clinic, weak with their many ailments. But, what is life really like for them? How do they survive? What goes on in their everyday world?

Finally we have a book which goes a long way toward giving one a look at the inside of life for the poor of Port-au-Prince. Simon Fass' POLITICAL ECONOMY IN HAITI: THE DRAMA OF SURVIVAL not only lets us inside the shacks of such people as a matmaker who survived selling 50 mats a week at a profit of 13 cents each, or a net monthly income of $6.50. Or, we peer into the life two brothers who made carpets for a net income of 21 cents a day (all prices are in 1976 dollars).

Along the way Fass explodes many myths about the poor of Haiti's capital, challenges most statistical data about them, and gives us a feeling tone for their lives. Quite an achievement for any book!

One of the most surprising claims of his book is his challenge that much of the statistical data concurring the life of Haiti's poor is unreliable. He charges that international organizations gather data in terms with which they are familiar, and then extrapolate that data in sort of creative informed guesstimates which often reflect the attitudes toward the poor of the guessers, and the self-interests of the agencies for which they work.

For example, Fass argues persuasively that there are virtually no people who are unemployed in the slums of Haiti. Such people would be dead of starvation. Rather, they are self-employed at the far margins of the economy. However, to report them as unemployed is, on Fass' view, to distort the picture of what goes on in the everyday world of Port-au-Prince's economy.

Simon Fass has worked for a number of years for various foreign agencies in Haiti. He became suspicious of how statistical data was generated and what it meant. From 1974 to 1976 Fass first lived in Haiti where he gathered the basic data which forms the backbone of this book.

"(My) experiences included passing encounters with thousands in momentary interactions required for large-scale survey purposes. More important were longer duration chitchats with hundreds, often over coffee, to talk about science, business, life in general and, to the extent possible, politics. Most important were meetings with 145 families who live on the streets, and 88 who lived in a neighborhood called St. Martin."

Fass discovered that his survey audience, while mainly illiterate and poorly educated, was a group of tough survivors.

"Other than the difficulties most of them faced in making ends meet with less than U.S. $0.32 per day per adult at a time when unit prices for food and water were higher than in North American or Europe--and the talent required to do so--they seemed to be little different from most urban residents in most developed or developing countries."

Fass sketches how people behaved in several areas of economic activity connected with that survival. There are chapters on: Making a living; food; water; shelter; schooling and credit. Although he never quite specifies the assumption, he seems to believe that given that these people are struggling for survival itself, they will behave in a nearly totally rational manner in their economic struggle for survival. Perhaps Fass believes that if they did not they would not have survived. Such would seem to be a fairly reasonable assumption. At any rate, he tries to figure out how one would have to behave in order to survive in this environment in this economic activity or that, and then analyzes the use of income for food, water, shelter and education. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that Fass will hypothesize some pattern as an ideal survival tactic. Then if his interviews suggest that the people behave differently, he goes back to his theory to revise the theory because of the data.

For example, Fass at first believes that housing would seem to be an unnecessary luxury for people struggling for survival in a tropical country. He assumes that people would just live on the street in order to make more of their wealth available for food and water. He says:

"The fact that they bothered to pay for such shelter, or more tangibly, that renters in St. Martin were willing to pay an average of 17 percent of income for it, was in certain respects surprising. Expending such a large share of income involved a high opportunity cost in foregone food and water intake, and in possibilities for increasing market capital. In principle, households could retain location advantages by living under arcades and thereby have significantly more resources for other things. Yet they were willing to give up a great deal for rudimentary housing. To justify such sacrifice, small and flimsy shelters had to be important to them."

The importance turns out to be, on Fass' analysis, that shelters were really primarily business places and homes only by the by. Since many of the families were either manufacturers or traders, they needed a safe place for storage of their goods to protect them from thieves, rodents, floods and rains. For the manufacturers their shelters were also their workrooms. Thus the primary reason for the shelter was not a place to live, but for economic activity--for survival itself.

Actually this example lays bare the central thesis of Fass' book: Those who struggle for survival (the vast majority of Port-au-Prince's population) make rational economic decisions as the primary choices in their lives. Each chapter of the book demonstrates how these decisions are carried out in choices about work, food, water, shelter and the education of the children.

Fass' book is simply extraordinary. It gives one a profound general analysis of the daily life of the very poor in Port-au-Prince. At the same time it takes us into the lives of particular people and lets us see (though I'm not sure most of us are capable of really understanding) what life is like for them. His two appendixes are very concrete case studies which can be read totally separately from the rest of the book.

At the same time this book challenges much of the familiar statistical data which many of us are used to citing. One can charge Fass with having an inadequate interview base for making such sweeping generalizations, or with using data for a current book which is more than 10 years old--both objections which are serious ones and are genuine weaknesses. But, more than the data, Fass' story rings true. It fits the experiences which most of us have when we visit Port-au-Prince. It provides convincing or at least provocative explanations for what we observe, but never get to see up close.

In my reviews of books on Haiti I try to be as positive as I can be. I usually recommend that you read the books I review. We all need to read more about Haiti to understand her better. But this book stands out. Of all the books I've reviewed in the past six years, it is my favorite. I feel I am being given PEOPLE in their everydayness. Their experience was being fitted into an economic theory which Fass had created, and this theory flies in the face of much common "wisdom" about Haiti. Yet the theory seemed to fit Fass' people and the people whom I've observed in my years in Haiti. His account lives and breathes. It is the first account I've ever read which helps me make felt sense of the everyday lives of Haiti's urban masses.


Art, Music, & Dance Book Reviews Film History Library Literature
Mailing List Miscellaneous Topics Notes on Books People to People Voodoo


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu