The Relief Disaster

The failure of foreign aid in post-quake Haiti.

The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, by Jonathan M. Katz, Palgrave MacMillan, 320 pages, $26.00. 

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.

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  • Concerned Citizen||

    But they meant well!

  • Jorge L. Stevens4||

    what Lori responded I am surprised that someone can earn $9134 in four weeks on the computer. did you see this web site...

  • C. Anacreon||

    Now look what you did to Haiti, Lori.

  • DJF||

    But Bill Clinton and George Bush were there, how could things go wrong? Oops, never mind.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    They just did not give that money to the correct Top Men.

  • ||

    They'd have been better off just dropping all the money out the back of a plane like propaganda leaflets. But enlightened liberals know that brown people can't survive without their benevolent intervention. Plus NGO gigs look good on the CV.

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    white liberals love telling other people how to live their lives!
    especially poor non-whites

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Last summer a professor friend was using Haiti as an example of how great things could be done.
    No, he's never been there.

  • ||

    See my stories below.

    You could blanket the island with 100 dollar bills, leave for a year, and when you came back it would look exactly the way it looks now. And they would all be flat broke.

  • Live Free or Diet||

    I've been to several hells just as bad. I was involved with building a factory in the Philippines that would directly employ 250 people, and maybe triple that in another 3 years. Three weeks after start-up it was looted and burned down by a mob of people who didn't get hired.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    It was RACISM what done it.

  • ||

    A couple of anecdotal stories about haiti.

    A friend of mine did a year in haiti training cops. He was sent out into the mountains to a small station where half a dozen haitian cops worked. They had a cinder block station house about 60 x 40. It was divided in half by a row of bars. The back was the jail, the front was the office. They had one desk. The desk only had two legs on the back side. To fill out paperwork they would kneel on the floor and hold the paper on the steeply slanted desktop.

    On his first day there my buddy put two cinder blocks under the legless side of the desk and then put a chair under it. Now he could sit at the desk normally. The local cops thought he was a genius.

  • ||

    There was a bandit who hid in the hills and would come to town every day at the same time, stand in the middle of the same intersection and fire randomly at passing traffic with an uzi.

    My buddy took his cops with him and waited in ambush. The guy showed up, began firing and when they confronted him he fired at them. They fired back at him. Preparing to run away, he jammed the uzi into his pants. He only had on a pair of shorts, no shirt no shoes. If y ou have ever shot guns much you should be able to guess what happened next.

    The uzi barrel seared itself to the guy's dick. In a painful panic he then grabbed the uzi and tried to yank it out of his pants. In doing so he pulled the trigger. He died on the way to the hospital.

  • ||

    He was called to a bus wreck. The bus had been going 60ish mph on a narrow road, lost control and rolled several times. He said there were bodies and body parts everywhere, even hanging in the trees. He asked if the driver had survived and someone told him yes.

    He walked over to where they indicated the driver was and discovered that yes, the driver had survived the wreck. He was lying in the road with his head chopped of. Another haitian was walking away with a bloody machete.

    The crowd would not let him arrest the guy. They explained that there, if you cause a wreck and people are killed, your head is chopped off on the spot. The machete guy was just doing his civic duty.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Jeebus dude, I can't decide if I should laugh or cry at these stories...wait, I know, I'll go pour more whisky instead!

  • Sidd Finch||

    It has proven hard for me to appreciate exactly how confused the Haitians are about some things. Gail, our program director, explained that she has a lot of trouble with her Haitian office staff because they don't understand the concept of sorting numerically. Not just "they don't want to do it" or "it never occurred to them", but after months and months of attempted explanation they don't understand that sorting alphabetically or numerically is even a thing. Not only has this messed up her office work, but it makes dealing with the Haitian bureaucracy - harrowing at the best of times - positively unbearable.

    Gail told the story of the time she asked a city office for some paperwork regarding Doctors Without Borders. The local official took out a drawer full of paperwork and looked through every single paper individually to see if it was the one she wanted. Then he started looking for the next drawer. After five hours, the official finally said that the paper wasn't in his office.

  • Cdr Lytton||

    Neil Buchanan GWU prof and co-blogger at Dorf on Law:

    I had not, for example, known about CNN host Erin Burnett's shocking comments (uttered three years ago tomorrow) in response to a suggestion by Donny Deutsch that maybe the big US banks should pay a profits tax to help fund the rebuilding of Haiti. Burnett's loud, angry reaction: "Hold on, Donny! What would they do with ALL THAT MONEY down there in Haiti?!" (As one critic later put it: "I'm sure they could think of something.")
  • Cdr Lytton||

    From the linked post above:

    GDP Haiti: $7 billion dollars, 10 million people

    Goldman Bonuses: $20 Billion dollars, 31,700 Banksters

    And I though Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh were bad.

    This is beyond over the top.

    There is something deep down, congenitally wrong with all these people.

    I feel unclean and deeply ashamed from just having watched this exchange.
  • ||

    "...maybe the big US banks should pay a profits tax to help fund the rebuilding of Haiti."

    "GDP Haiti: $7 billion dollars, 10 million people

    Goldman Bonuses: $20 Billion dollars, 31,700 Banksters.....This is beyond over the top."

    In other words, if one is more successful than another then they should have what they own forcefully taken from them and given to those who have less, just because. Neil Buchanan's sense of fairness is the ultimate gauge of what is right.

    What a vile piece of communist shit Neil Buchanan is.

  • Cdr Lytton||

    Yes, but to be clear the first quote was his post and the second was what he linked to.

  • iggy||

    I'd love to see that exact same logic for whoever wrote that.

    'GDP per capita Haiti: $1,200
    Income of person who wrote that post: $75,000'


  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Funny that no one ever hears about taxes on multi-billion dollar entertainment industries from these paragons.

  • wareagle||

    Team loyalties are an interesting thing that go beyond Blue and Red. Team Bank fan Erin immediately defended her professional access to information providers. Given what happens to aid money funneled into places like Haiti, her comments were not altogether wrong.

    She could has asked Donny if Big Advertising should pay a similar profits tax since he was so quick to put other folks' money where his mouth is. But he is old line Team Blue whore, willing to spend someone else's dollars, looking for ways to hide his.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    The guys at CNBC did an impressive job of hiding what a fucking airhead Erin Burnett is; it looks like CNN has really let her off the leash.

  • Killazontherun||

    $4,462 on a deep fryer for the U.S. Coast Guard.

    If that thing doesn't handle a dozen whole turkeys at a time, our tax monies have been squandered.

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