When Jonathan M. Katz felt the rumbling and shaking, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. As an American journalist living in Haiti, he had gotten used to the constant shaking of 18-wheeler trucks driving down the narrow streets and laneways of Port-au-Prince, delivering everything. Literally everything. There was almost no other infrastructure to get goods to people, or even people to people.
Everyone knows the story of the earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010. And we all know the story of how the world sprung into action – in a slow-motion kind of way (with a few exceptions – Cuba, Venezuela, and Israel come to mind) – to bring assistance to the people of Haiti. What many of us don’t know is that, for the most part, we’ve done far more harm than good.
Katz is believed to be the only American journalist on site when the earthquake hit. Apparently, it is not important whether any non-American journalists might have been there because most reviewers have pointed out this salient detail as a badge of authenticity for Katz’s book that has followed three years later. In fact, his presence there and his knowledge of Haiti (he had been living there for more than two years) are crucial to his understanding of the situation and the writing of his book. His nationality and citizenship are not.
Katz’s book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster is a gem. With the insight of a journalist who was present when the disaster struck, who knows the Haitian people, and who stayed put while the world ‘came to the rescue’, Katz had the ability to see and record the unfolding of a nightmare. The extraordinary first-person account is incredibly well researched and sourced. And it is very readable, with an almost novel-like quality.
Two of the largest ‘contributors’ to recovery were Canada and the United States. Whether they were truly well-intentioned or not isn’t my point here; it’s what a piss poor job both of them did being ‘helpful’.
Just a couple of weeks ago. Canada’s intellectually-challenged Minister in charge of CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency), Julian Fantino, wondered out loud why there were still so many unemployed in Haiti and why the island is covered with garbage despite all the aid that poured into the island following the earthquake. The first thing to know about Minister Fantino is that he is dumber than a bag of aggregate gravel. Even if Haiti’s infrastructure had been restored to its pre-quake level, there would still be a lot of unemployed people because Haiti is traditionally poor. Apparently, the Minister didn’t know that. As for the garbage, well, we put a lot of it there.
So let’s start with the garbage. Following almost any natural disaster, everything is turned upside down and basic supplies of life are usually disrupted. After Cuba, Venezuela, and Israel got quickly on the ground with medical aid, other countries started to show up with supplies. What makes a big impact on those nightly newscasts back home is huge trucks carrying bottled water. And we were all able to feel good about that. The problem is, Haiti didn’t really need water at that point – they needed a way to purify the water they already had. Nobody thought to help them out with that. And we brought them equipment, without training them how to use or repair it.
Three years later, guess what’s covering the ground in Haiti: empty water bottles. There is no infrastructure to recycle or destroy or bury them, and they were delivered in their millions. So they end up lying in the ditches and gutters, lining the roadsides, and annoying guys like Julian Fantino.
And Haiti got a lot of other things from the outside world that didn’t help much: food that undermined local production; no money directly to accountable government to aid in rebuilding (it went to non-accountable NGOs who spent it as befitted their mandates, not Haitian needs).
Oh yeah, and cholera. They didn’t need that either, but that has turned out to be the most important thing brought to Haiti by the United Nations. [Slate magazine carried an article on February 25, 2013 noting that the UN has denied any responsibility for the cholera that it brought to Haiti. It refuses even to say it’s sorry. Perhaps not by coincidence, the article was written by Jonathan M. Katz.]
Maclean’s magazine reviewer Michael Petrou writes:
What Haiti didn’t get – at least if we’re talking about its government – was cash. Much of the money that was pledged was never delivered. Millions of so-called aid dollars were in fact debt relief. And many millions more went to the UN, or NGOs, or never left the donor countries at all. It went to pay for things like hotel rooms, and SUVs.
What Haiti got most of was Hollywood. Lots of photo opportunities for presumably well-intentioned people, but no long-term help for Haitians. We did manage to build them a lot of really nice refugee settlements (i.e. tents) and lots of big name Hollywood types and a lot of international politicos were filmed or photographed doing their level best to look concerned and helpful. I’m willing to accept that many of them were concerned. Very few were helpful.
Little work or money was put into rebuilding roads, shoring up damaged buildings and bridges, restoring power grids and sanitary infrastructure. The majority of the cash pledged to Haiti never got to Haitians. You’ll no doubt understand that this did little to put food in the bellies of Haitians or roofs over their heads.
Canada, where I live, has a sizeable Haitian community. Indeed, at the time of the quake, our Governor General (the representative of the Queen of England) was of Haitian origin. And her Haitian home was close to the area hardest hit. So she was certainly moved and concerned and took on the task of supporting to the best of her ability. But the government she served, my government, was useless. Of all the money pledged or spent by the government of Canada, not a single dollar was given directly to Haiti. Instead, we provided funding to NGOs to let them run the cleanup, thereby helping to further weaken the Haitian government in the eyes of its people. The NGOs, of course, are completely unaccountable to the people of Haiti – or even to the people of Canada, for that matter.
Before I get carried away complaining about my own useless government and the capitalist bastards who arrived in Haiti to feast on the corpse, let me end with one request: Each of you, go find Jonathan Katz’s book and read it. Then sit and think for a bit about what a dreadful job the world does in trying to respond to emergency.
The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster – Jonathan M. Katz, ISBN-10: 023034187X, ISBN-13: 978-0230341876
Paul Richard Harris is an Axis of Logic editor and columnist, based in Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.