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.