Natural disaster, man-made hell

Published in The World Today (February 8th, 2013)

The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster by Jonathan M Katz (Palgrave Macmillan) 

Jonathan Katz was waiting for the phone call that would allow him to leave Haiti when he heard a loud rumbling. At first he thought it was a water truck. Instead, it was the opening salvo of a terrible earthquake. Such is the enduring tragedy of this blighted nation that we have no idea how many people died. You can choose any number from the 85,000 claimed by US researchers through to the 316,000 suggested by the Haitian government.

As Katz, a news agency reporter who had spent two and a half years in the country, shows, few things are clear in Haiti. It is difficult to say who really governs the country, let alone who owns the land. Only one thing is beyond doubt since the earth shook with such fury on that hot January afternoon three years ago: for all the promises to build a better Haiti, the country has been let down again and remains in crisis.

In a book that is an absorbing mixture of memoir, reportage and investigation, Katz tries to find out how the global relief effort backfired so badly and what happened to the money raised. More than $15 billion was pledged by a shocked world in the aftermath. For all his efforts, Katz, who stayed on an extra year to cover the earthquake and its consequences, does not quite succeed in his challenge – but this does not detract from a devastating indictment of relief efforts.

The scenes are chilling as he describes the horror that followed the earthquake. Some bodies were torn to pieces, some left whole, as shocked families searched for relatives in the debris. Katz uses his camera’s flash to light up a pile of rubble with a foot sticking out. It is only later, reviewing the photographs he has taken, that he sees there was a man’s head there, clearly alive and in agony. No wonder the author was to suffer post-traumatic stress.

The huge search-and-rescue efforts saved at most 211 people. From the start there was little consultation with – and often an ill-disguised contempt for – the Haitians. The international rescue squads focused on trapped foreigners. Aid teams, fearing riots and looting, remained isolated in compounds and cars. The US Navy, desperate to keep a distance, threw bottles of water from helicopters until it was pointed out that this was causing panic rather than averting it.

Local people were frozen out of key meetings and not trusted to spend the donated money – much of which never actually came through. Foreigners – rotating in for a few weeks at a time
and imposing ‘solutions’ from the centre – made blunder after blunder. One veteran relief worker, for instance, was ignored when pointing out that distributing food in the tent cities that sprang up would make them permanent, as proved to be the case.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton, the UN special envoy, based his actions on a 19-page report by Paul Collier, professor of economics at the University of Oxford, written after one trip to the island lasting five days. In addition, the United Nations soldiers from Nepal are believed to be the most likely source of the cholera that killed thousands more Haitians.

The aim of the earthquake response was to prevent riots, ensure stability and prevent the spread of disease. As Katz points out, for all the huge sums of money and genuine goodwill that accompanied it, the international effort did the opposite: they helped spark unrest, undermined stability and imported a lethal disease.

Having visited Haiti last year to investigate these shocking failures, I find Katz’s pacily written book has a horrible ring of truth. The most significant building projects in the capital since are highly priced hotels for foreigners, while the job of demolishing the wrecked presidential palace was given to Sean Penn’s charity. These two facts tell you all you need to know. Perhaps next time the aid industry will let the people it is purporting to save have a stake in their own salvation.

Related Posts

Categorised in: , , , ,