On March 31, 2010, almost three months after an earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, the capital city of the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, Bill Clinton helped lead a conference on how Haiti could rise from the rubble. Dubbed “Towards a New Future for Haiti,” the conference did its best to put a hopeful face on the trauma. Representatives from 150 nations and NGOs pledged more than $8 billion so that Haiti could, in Clinton’s phrase, “build back better.”
Though the pledges were generous, other aspects of the conference were lacking. The most prominent Haitian in the room, President René Préval, was little more than a spectator. The “action plan,” purportedly conceived by the Haitian government, clearly had been influenced by foreign interests that demanded strict oversight of their donations, and wealthy investors intent on making the new Haiti a business-friendly place. By the end, as Jonathan Katz relates in The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left a Disaster, some observers were left with an uncomfortable question: “Would reconstruction be done to Haiti, or by Haiti?”
That’s the question that drives Katz’s wise, deeply reported new book about the January 2010 earthquake and its aftermath, and for anyone familiar with Haiti’s sad history, the answer was never really in doubt. Katz, a former AP correspondent, was the only full-time American reporter stationed in Haiti when the quake hit; he stayed for more than a year thereafter, reporting on the charitable aftershocks—as small donations were mishandled by NGOs, as big donations never materialized, and as the world gradually lost interest and left Haiti to fend for itself. The book is both a primer on how and why reconstructions fail, and an indictment of the benign paternalism that motivates donors, developers, and other do-gooders to impose their will on distraught places that they pity but don’t bother to understand.
For as long as Haiti has existed, foreigners have been trying to fix it. Early in the island’s history, the tools of improvement were familiar ones: invasion, repression, economic suasion, and other favorites from the colonialism handbook. France transformed Haiti into a vast sugar plantation; the United States installed several puppet presidents favorably disposed to American corporate interests. But eventually, Haiti stopped being worth the trouble. Strongman regimes made a mockery of democratic governance; millions migrated from the countryside to a capital unready for such a vast population influx. Haiti’s problems were so systemic, its infrastructure so rotten, that when interested foreigners got together to discuss them, the solutions always came down to one of two things: a bulldozer or a bomb.
They were “two sides of the same coin,” Katz observes, “the idea that only a transformative, external force could solve Haiti.” When the 2010 earthquake struck with the power of 25 Hiroshimas, these armchair planners had been given the sort of clean slate they’d been looking for. “Devastating” hardly begins to describe the effects of an earthquake that killed tens (and possibly hundreds) of thousands, and made millions more homeless. Katz devotes much of his first 100 pages to a stark, compelling first-person account of the quake and its immediate aftermath. Standing outside his collapsed house in the moments after the earthquake, Katz listens as, all around him, survivors air their grief in a haunting, haunted chorus:
I had only ever heard Haitian women make that sound, and only ever standing before the worst thing in the world: the collapse of a home, the death of a child. Now it came from everywhere. It resounded from the dust cloud, along the ridge, and up from the ravine. The sound echoed across Pétionville, coming down from the hills, up from below and from the direction of the hotel. It seemed to come from inside.
“We stood and listened. Evens [his Haitian fixer] looked at me. ‘Thousands of people are dead,’ he said.
No one disputes that Haiti needed help. Left unsaid was the implicit assumption that one certainly couldn’t trust Haitians to help themselves. Aid groups warned potential donors, “Do Not Give To The Haitian Government: Haiti is known to be a corrupt country;” media organizations announced that “the chief culprit of current or past suffering in Haiti” was “intense corruption.” It wouldn’t surprise me if some observers secretly believed the Préval regime had engineered the earthquake in order to steal billions from the international community.
Though rooted in reality—corruption is more overt in Haiti than in more sophisticated countries—Katz argues convincingly that this perception was ridiculously overblown. Though he by no means paints a flattering portrait of the hapless, stubborn Préval, he criticizes those who automatically assumed the Préval government was as venal as its predecessors. This was pretty much everybody. The corruption that pervaded the notorious Duvalier and Aristide regimes was assumed to be endemic to Haiti and Haitians, and relief operations were determined to keep their funds out of the Haitian government’s reach, no matter who was in charge.
The result? Donated money went directly to NGOs and organizations that were often fundamentally incapable of putting that money to its proper use. Millions of dollars in tens and twenties flowed to the American Red Cross, for instance, which was neither able nor eager to spearhead a comprehensive, long-term redevelopment effort; other aid organizations used the donations for salaries, capacity-building, and other non-earthquake-related matters. Katz estimates that of the $2.43 billion spent on ostensible humanitarian relief by the end of 2010, a mere 7 percent actually made its way to Haiti.
NGOs and relief operations were disorganized and frantic; the aid they rendered was haphazard and often useless. (“To force food out while maintaining distance from crowds,” Katz writes, “the US Navy threw boxes of bottled water and rations from hovering helicopters until other responders complained that this method was itself causing panic.”) They based their priorities on things the media had reported, few of which were true: that Haitians were in danger of immediate starvation, for instance, or that the country was on the verge of riot.
Katz makes clear that direct aid to the Préval government was just as important to Haiti’s long-term future as were immediate donations of relief materials. Direct aid, he argues, would’ve helped strengthen an infrastructure that had been crippled by decades of political instability and helped lead to a sustainable recovery. But few donors were interested. Katz describes how, in the days preceding Bill Clinton’s conference, Préval made the rounds in Washington, explaining why the Haitian government—and, by extension, the Haitian people—would benefit from direct financial support. “At every stop, the president explained the need to build strong, well-funded institutions,” writes Katz. “At every stop, he was turned down.”
Throughout, Katz questions the wisdom of entrusting the reconstruction to people who didn’t live in Haiti, weren’t personally affected by the earthquake, and would be on the first plane out when telegenic tragedy struck elsewhere. There’s a telling chapter set at the March 2010 donor conference, where Préval sat through a series of speeches that only served to underscore how little control he would have over the rebuilding of his own country. The donors had their own ideas of how to “build back better,” epitomized by the words of Brad Horwitz, an American whose company owned one of Haiti’s largest cell-phone networks: “We need Haiti open for business.”
“Open for business” very specifically referred to the production of cheap garments. The plan for rebuilding Haiti involved luring garment factories that would potentially bring up to 100,000 jobs and catapult the country into the global economy. But garment companies would only move to Haiti to take advantage of poorly paid workers earning no more than $1.75 per day. So where was the benefit for ordinary Haitians? Some believed that “a low-wage job is better than none,” as an NPR story put it, which completely ignored the reality of Haiti’s vast informal economy. Katz effectively describes how most Haitians earned money here and there—selling fruit on the roadside, washing cars—and asks “how jobs that pay too little to save money, offer no security, and only in rare cases present a chance for training or advancement would be different from selling juice on the street, much less lead to an economic boom.”
Halfway through the book, Katz cites economist William Easterly, who, in his great book The White Man’s Burden, divides development theorists into Planners and Searchers. “A Planner thinks he already knows the answers,” writes Easterly. “A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors.” The Haiti response was dominated by Planners—and the international press in Haiti, with its penchant for easy solutions and clear answers to hard questions, was dominated by Planners, too. Many of those reporting on the disaster knew little about Haiti other than that it was broken, and gravitated toward those loud voices who claimed they knew how to fix it. As a result, their coverage failed to challenge the dominant narrative.
The Big Truck That Went By is, among other things, a testament to the value of journalists who are actually familiar with the countries they cover; of Searchers like Jonathan Katz, who reject the oversimplified narratives that characterize so much of crisis journalism, and know that the more time you spend in a troubled place, the harder it becomes to understand. Shortly after the earthquake, he writes, foreign journalists played a game in which they attempted to describe Haiti in a single word. “Diseased” was one entry. “Violent” was another. Katz’s response was different. “ I took the paper and wrote: HERE.”Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.