Book Review: The Big Truck Went By - How the World Came to Save Haiti And Left Behind a Disaster

  • Posted on: 20 January 2013
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Below is a review, from Reason, of Jonathan Katz's book on the shortcomings of the international community's efforts to "save" Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.  While no response to the aftermath earthquake, no matter how well-organized or well-resourced would have been sufficient, he emphasizes that the subsequent reconstruction effort was hobbled by a top-down approach that excluded governmental institution, weak as they may have been, local firms, and community groups.  To read an excerpt or purchase the book, take a look at  Amazon.  

 

 

Jonathan M. Katz begins his book about the devastating Haiti earthquake of 2010 with men pulling children from the rubble of a collapsed Port-au-Prince school called La Promesse. In efforts to save on construction costs, the school’s owner had done what many in the city do: He had used thinly mixed concrete and skimped on rebar. When the three-story structure collapsed into the ravine beside it, nearly 100 schoolchildren died. The collapse happened in 2008, two years before the earthquake that destroyed more than a hundred thousand structures in and around the Haitian capital and killed anywhere from 85,000 to 316,000 people. It was a spontaneous implosion. Katz, a reporter with the Associated Press, asked then-president René Préval why a building code wasn’t in place to prevent the school collapse. Préval replied that there was in fact a safety code, but the owner had failed to follow it.

 

The institution intended to prevent such catastrophes existed but wasn’t effective. In The Big Truck That Went By, Katz presents an engaging first-person account of the quake and the first year of the international response that followed. He recounts living through the earthquake in the AP house, which served both as his residence and as an office for himself and his Haitian fixer/driver/translator, Evens Sanon. The first chapter takes readers through the chilling hours that followed the quake as Katz and Sanon rode around a devastated Port-au-Prince trying to apprehend the destruction and find a cell signal to file reports. “For decades,” Katz writes, “researchers have told us that the link between cataclysm and social disintegration is a myth perpetuated by movies, fiction, and misguided journalism.” His experience after the quake rebuts such myths. While “the quake zone would be seen as a helpless zoo” to those overseas, Katz says that there “was no sign of violence....In the midst of near-total disaster, people were trying to go on.” All the people panicking, he writes, were outside the country.

 

A few days after the earthquake, for example, Katz and Sanon traveled to Léogâne, a town just west of Port-au-Prince and near the quake’s epicenter. As they approached the town’s limits, they come upon a barricade and group of young men wielding machetes and clubs. They were, Katz learned, “on guard for bands of looters they heard were running wild in the capital.” “Where did you hear that?” Katz asked. “On the news,” came the reply. Léogâne was mostly peaceful, if mostly flattened. The factors that fueled panic abroad were some of the same ones that have made it difficult for outsiders to effect progress in Haiti, a theme underlying Katz’s account. Language and cultural barriers generated misunderstandings. The perception of a “helpless zoo” led to an immediate foreign response that was overly focused on security—it included 22,000 U.S. Marines—at the expense of other priorities. It also helped ensure a “command-and-control” approach to disaster releief, which Katz says limited responders’ geographic focus. The “top-down, highly centralized model,” he writes, “as opposed to a broader-based, collaborative approach, meant that parts of the capital such as Pétionville received tremendous amounts of attention while outlying areas such as Carrefour were ignored.”

 

The inherent divisions between outsiders, known as blan in Haitian Creole, and Haitians meant “many organizations took measures fit for a war zone, curfews and tight restrictions on what neighborhoods staff could enter.” Crime wasn’t nonexistent, but the reaction was far out of proportion to the risks. This “Blan Bubble,” Katz writes, in which he and all foreign journalists, aid workers, and diplomats operate, affected the first few months of relief response. But that was just the beginning.  “The problem was that these individuals were merely the vanguard of distant, massive organizations whose managers seemed less interested in nuances or painful lessons on the ground. And their—our—ability to report back those nuances was inhibited by the fact that we were viewing life through a bubble, separated by language, class, and divisions that stretched back farther than Haitian history.” He describes how these divisions led to short-term or supply-driven aid approaches that amounted to applying band-aids rather than helping to improve (or build anew) local institutions. He also acknowledges that outsiders operating with limited local, language, and cultural comprehension aren't very well-equipped to effect that change in the first place. At one point, Katz compares Bill Clinton, the U.N.’s special envoy to Haiti since 2009 (dubbed Le Gouverneur by the Haitian press), to the Protestant missionaries who have been coming to Haiti since the 19th century with the conviction that “only an outside force could save Haiti.” International media coverage helped private U.S. donations reach $1.4 billion by the end of 2010. That media onslaught involved many foreign journalists who swarmed into Haiti for the first time while covering the disaster. Superficial reporting, Katz notes, at times reinforced perceptions of corruption in the Haitian government that may not have been warranted, as when reporters repeatedly citied Transparency International’s index about perceived corruption as if it were God’s law.

 

Katz doesn’t claim that the Haitian government is a bastion of purity and transparency. But he does make a case that overblown perceptions about corruption led to an unwarranted degree of mistrust. These perceptions make donors reluctant to funnel money through Haitian entities, governmental or not. It has even led some to consider freezing aid to Haiti altogether. Katz also claims that observers unfairly hold Haiti to a different standard than, say, the United States, documenting several questionable purchases that Americans bought with Haiti aid money: $368,000 in food and lodging for U.S. government employees at the five-star Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington, D.C.; $4,462 on a deep fryer for the U.S. Coast Guard. Ultimately, foreign governments and agencies like the World Bank pledged billions to rebuild Haiti, but much of the promised aid has yet to be delivered, and most aid that has been spent went to foreign aid groups and contractors. Donors have channeled comparatively minuscule amounts to the admittedly weak Haitian government and local firms and organizations, the parties Katz advocates should receive a larger share of the pie. These local entities are presumably most interested in “the need to build strong, well-funded institutions” that President Préval preached in the aftermath of the quake. Katz may be overly optimistic about channeling aid through Haiti’s government. But Haitian businesses and civic organizations have the local context required to work in the country nimbly and effectively, and they have the greatest incentives for better institutions to develop.

 

Katz’s account offers evidence that international efforts after the quake have failed to push Haiti very far toward reconstructed housing, let alone better institutions. After the 2008 school collapse, Préval told Katz that “political instability” is what keeps Haiti from realizing institutions that preclude disasters like La Promesse. Once stability arrived, the president claimed, progress would follow. Katz’s follow up question to Préval two years before the earthquake is the one that remains today: “But what will you do until then?”

Comments

The New Statesman
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On January 12, 2010 a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck fifteen miles outside Port-au-Prince, the capital of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It levelled the city. Poorly constructed buildings made of over-stretched concrete collapsed en-masse, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. Months later, an outbreak of Cholera claimed thousands more. Former AP correspondent Jonathan Katz was the only American journalist in Haiti when the earthquake hit. He had lived in the country for two and a half years, and stayed on throughout the reconstruction efforts. Over $10 billion was pledges to Haiti in an outpouring of relief funds and private donations. So why, three years on, is Haiti no better off? “Nearly a million are still homeless...rubble, some mixed with human remains, still chokes much of the city. At last count, more than half the reconstruction money that was supposed to be delivered as of 2011 remains an unfulfilled promise,” writes Katz in the introduction to his new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. Misspent aid money, reneged pledges, lack of funds given directly to the Haitian government, cultural misunderstandings and corrupt self-interest are just a few of the issues that allowed the effort to fail, Katz argues.
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I wanted to write this book to understand how a massive humanitarian effort, led by the most powerful nation in the world – my country – could cause so much harm and heartache in another that wanted its help so badly. People remember the Haiti earthquake as both an unimaginable disaster and a milestone humanitarian effort. Your thesis is that the relief effort failed - and in some ways became a disaster itself. Why did things turned out this way? Things haven’t gone well because the same mistakes that were made before the earthquake, the mistakes that made the earthquake so destructive, were repeated after the earthquake. It was a transformative disaster that, in addition to disfiguring the landscape of Haiti and Port-au-Prince, was also an opportunity to do aid differently, and to recast the relationship between Haiti and the international community - particularly the United States, France and Canada. And that opportunity was lost. We seem so entrenched in our attitudes and our ways of doing things that even despite the enormity of this disaster we were unable to change.
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The tone of your book so much pessimistic as desperate. You write that you initially believed Hillary Clinton when she pledged to ‘do things differently’ and resist ‘falling back on old habits’, which of course didn’t happen. Was the relief effort incapable or just lazy?
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Change is hard. Change is always hard, especially any change that asks you to hold yourself accountable for people for whom you were not previously accountable. Here’s one way of putting it: to do aid differently asks us to fundamentally alter our understanding of who we are and what we are capable of. Part of that is realizing we’re not always a force for good. Aid and disaster response is often looked upon as a gift: “we didn’t have to help, but you’re in need so I’m going to save you.”
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And you’re saying that’s a problem, because there is a presumption that whoever plays the ‘savior’ role inherently knows what’s best?
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Right. It’s the attitude of a parent to a child. When you read the pamphlets from USAID and various other development agencies, they will use a broadly philosophical, almost novelistic language. But what I’m trying to show is that this has not been a relationship of unalloyed good. It has also been a relationship of unalloyed evil. There are plenty of people who will tear your ear of about how the United States has tried to screw Haiti up from the beginning – and I don’t think that’s accurate - but we do have to understand that we’ve been affecting Haiti for a long time with our trade and immigration policies. So it’s not a question of whether we should be involved; it’s a question of how we should be involved. To use poker terms: we are pot committed.
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You write about people losing interesting in the Haitian plight a few months after the earthquake. How do you maintain the public’s interest in a reconstruction effort once they’ve donated their money?
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It’s a good question. When talking about a poor country in crisis, there’s this idea of the commodity of attention: that if we can only pay attention things will get better, and if things are getting worse it’s because we have withheld our attention.

But attention is not always good. Celebrities are big on attention, it’s what they do, going to a country to ‘raise awareness’. I’m not saying that’s bad, but attention in-and-of itself doesn’t mean anything, especially in the way that it is often meted out to Haiti. Celebrities and sportsmen come to raise awareness by pointing out a hungry child with a pot belly and saying “it’s so sad but there’s still hope, so please give money to UNICEF”. And then they leave and they’ve done nothing. All they’ve done is perpetuate a stereotype about a Haitian child and called for the perpetuation of a political, industrialized kind of aid.
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If people care enough to be reading my book or travelling to Haiti, they need to use their contributions in a smarter way. You can’t save everybody, but focus your attention on one thing you care about and understand it as deeply as you can. That will ultimately go a lot farther. And get rid of the industrialized savior complex.
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After living in a disaster zone, would you say the ‘savior complex’ is a dynamic perpetuated only by foreigners, or is it more nuanced than that?
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It’s absolutely true that it’s more complicated than we often assume. In America the debate often takes on the same shape as the debate on welfare in Britain. The conversation about Haiti has the same tone of ‘dependency’ and ‘laziness’, because Haitians often do look at any white person that comes to their country as a purveyor of aid. But it doesn’t mean that they’re waiting for our largess. They’re working very hard and trying to manage their lives.
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Every reporter will go to Haiti and see so much activity - streets full of people selling and trading and trying to make money any way they can. It is insane to think you’re looking at a place that we report as 40-70% unemployment. There’s a word in Haitian Creole, dégagé, which basically translates as “muddling through” or “hustling”, every hour of every day just to get by. The aid industrialized countries give to Haiti is part of dégagé, you as a foreigner are part of dégagé, but we’re not the whole thing. Haitians are capable of taking care of themselves, they just need the tools. Dignity is one of the most important things in Haitian life. Go to any tent camp, even if it's absolute squalor and the latrines are overflowing, people will walk past you with their clothes all coordinated. They may just have one dress and one ribbon but by god they’re going to work it.
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You reveal that much of the aid money went to investing in the Haitian garment industry. Was this just another ‘quick fix’ that fits our Western model of what a developing job market should be?
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Yeah, absolutely. Of course the garment industry seems an attractive industry for Americans, because it’s good for us too.
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But you don’t really buy it, do you?
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It has a lousy track record. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but having garment factories as the centerpiece of the economy is problematic because the entire principle of the garment industry is that it goes where wages are lowest. So every time the Haitian government raises the minimum wage, that presents a problem for the industry and it’s less likely that new jobs will be created.
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Money should go to investing in businesses that are producing for the Haitian market. It’s not like these factories are making clothes for Haitians; they are off-shore battery production for other countries. Outside the existing garment factories in Port-au-Prince there are women sitting on the street selling clothes from Panama. As an American I’m wearing my fashionable, quality controlled clothes made in Haiti, while the women who work in that factory have to buy crappy second-hand clothes that have just come off a boat.
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What Haiti needs is a functioning, robust society that is full of domestic institutions and is capable of supporting itself.
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The Big Truck is also very personal. You discuss your own experience of PTSD, shock, and your struggles as a journalist. How was writing a book different from reporting?
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It was very liberating. I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode when Homer is in a space shuttle and slams into an ant farm. The ants realize the glass is broken and start shouting “freedom, terrible freedom!”That’s what it was like - I thought, wow, I can write whatever I want. The book is personal because I wanted to portray myself accurately, to let readers know who was filtering this experience for them. We all come with our biases. I wanted to confront head on the fact that I did have some skin in the game, that I did have emotions here, and it was a necessary trade off for being able to tell the type of story that I did. On the afternoon of January 12 I thought I was being moved to Afghanistan. It just goes to show, never make predictions.
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The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster by Jonathan Katz is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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