In Memoriam, Anthropologist Sidney Mintz, 1922-2015
I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Sidney Mintz face-to-face, but I did have the chance to correspond with him via email a bit. A high thrill of my lifetime was receiving a hand-addressed manila envelope from him (see photo below), containing several of his hard-to-find publications, which I had inquired about.
After I thanked Mintz, he closed his response with:
…Give my best Jerry [anthropologist Gerald Murray and the chair of my dissertation], would you please? tell him I’m going to be 90 in November, and I’m still trying to make trouble — with some success!
My last correspondence with Sid was in August 2015, when I inquired if he would consider doing an interview for the National Association of Student Anthropologists’ column in the American Anthropological Association’s Anthropology News publication. He responded:
Let me see the questions so I can decide. I’m not snobbish, honest — just busy!
One is never great by being in proximity to greatness, but Sidney Mintz’s writing on Haiti has always been a great inspiration to me, and to many, many others. Rest in peace, Sidney Mintz, and thank you for your contributions to understanding Haiti and to anthropology in general.
Culture and Agriculture is a section of the American Anthropological Association. In this ‘Notes from the Field’ post, I reflect on the theoretical challenges and daily tasks associated with a year of dissertation fieldwork in rural Haiti.
As an academic completing a PhD in sociocultural anthropology, I recently entered less-conventional terrain when I started a fellowship within the Haitian government; anthropologists conducting research in Haiti have traditionally worked with rural or marginalized urban-dwelling Haitians. As an inaugural fellow of the Fulbright Public Policy Program, this unique opportunity was also new terrain for the Fulbright program. Fulbright Public Policy Fellows are placed in high-level ministerial positions as special assistants to their respective government ministries. In common with all Fulbright programs, a major goal of this new fellowship is to encourage long-term ties and mutual understanding between the U.S. and the partnering country.
My placement is in the cabinet of Haiti’s prime minister, at the Ministry of Planning and External Cooperation. My prior skill sets were based primarily on research—the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data, usually from the rural Haitian countryside. It took some time to become adjusted to politics of Haitian governmental culture, and to shift in focusing less on research and more on policy creation and implementation, and project monitoring and evaluation.
Early in my tenure here, I sat on a taskforce that worked in concert with the governmental unit that oversees the registration, coordinating, and monitoring and evaluation of the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Haiti. Bill Clinton has often stated that there are over 10,000 NGOs operating in Haiti—a scenario that has earned the country the moniker ‘The Republic of NGOs’. In the days following the Haiti earthquake of early 2010, the chronic problem of unregulated NGOs fell into sharp relief as an acute challenge to the strategic coordination and distribution of emergency relief services and humanitarian aid. Many people—including both critics and advocates of NGOs—view the registration and coordination of the activities of NGOs as essential to improving the delivery of important services, ending the waste of resources that comes with multiple NGOs ‘reinventing the wheel,’ and strengthening the autonomy of the Haitian government.
My placement presented a unique opportunity to become involved with several aspects of important policy work, including providing input for the rewriting of the outdated law on NGOs, recruiting panelists for the first national forum on NGOs, and working with different software applications for the management of large volumes of data. Toward the end of my fellowship my work has shifted toward the creation of dynamic maps that convey information about underlying databases of information on government and NGO projects throughout the country. I was able to build upon my university training in geographic information systems (GIS) in these latter efforts.
As an anthropologist, my fellowship has also provided a rare window into the often maligned but under-researched nature of the Haitian government. In a few weeks I will complete my fellowship, and head on to dissertation fieldwork in rural Haiti. I have learned so much from my time working for the Ministry of Planning, and I am truly appreciative to the Fulbright program and the Haitian government for this opportunity.
Read more about my Fulbright experience at the Fulbright blog:
The program has since been renamed the Fulbright-Clinton Public Policy Fellowship. A related version of this blog was published in Ki Nouvèl: The Haitian Studies Association Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 1, pg. 8.