“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.”

 

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.