The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, by Jonathan Katz, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£16.99/$26, 320 pages
Port-au-Prince is a short flight from New York but a world apart. When I arrived in the Haitian capital in January 2011, the gulf between the daily realities of life in the western hemisphere’s richest and poorest countries had never felt wider.
One year after the devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people, an unprecedented outpouring of international sympathy and aid seemed to have come to nothing. The toppled presidential palace remained in ruins, alongside dozens of other government buildings in a similar state. For miles around, tens of thousands of homes were unrepaired, while hundreds of thousands of people still lived under donated tarpaulins provided for “temporary” accommodation.
Despite the copious reporting and billions of dollars pledged for reconstruction in Haiti in the preceding months, few foreign journalists had been sent to the country for the anniversary of the disaster. Fewer still arrived, many diverted instead at the last minute to cover the shooting of US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Such fickle fluctuations in foreign interest are the subject of Jonathan Katz’s book The Big Truck That Went By, concisely summarised in the subtitle: “How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster”. He recounts a press conference after a donors’ meeting in 2010 hosted by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and her international counterparts. Following a question on aid, discussion quickly turned to Iran. “Do I need to develop a nuclear programme … so that we come back to talking about Haiti?” René Préval, the country’s frustrated president, cut in.
Katz, as Associated Press correspondent in Haiti, was well placed to document such mood swings. Unlike the many highly paid humanitarian relief experts who flew in (and often swiftly back out), he had already been in the country for two years. He describes his own near-death experience during the earthquake. “I watched the front wall crack in two, daylight pushing through the throbbing dust. With every heartbeat, the floor disappeared from under me and reappeared and was gone.”
The Big Truck That Went By reflects this depth of experience. Katz offers a frank insider’s guide to Haiti; he describes the frustrations of dealing with high-handed bureaucrats, self-appointed camp leaders exaggerating their penury and misappropriating aid, even scams by his own Haitian staff and contacts.
But he also believes local strengths were often overlooked. Foreigners kept control of aid flows, international rescue teams focused disproportionately on trapped foreigners, and Haitian officials were excluded from meetings run by transient expats. Exaggerated fears of looting and chaos meant aid workers tended to remain isolated in guarded compounds.
Katz is at his best describing two of his own investigations: tracking the likely source of a cholera outbreak in 2011 to cracked pipes and corner-cutting sewage disposal at a UN peacekeepers’ camp; and identifying the conflicts of interest of a top official relocating displaced people to a camp outside the city – on to land he owned and had earmarked for a planned factory in which he hoped they would work.
The author is critical of stars such as Bill Clinton – “Le Gouverneur”, as he was known locally – who had played an unhelpful role in Haiti as US president and yet was put in charge of raising, spending and supervising aid money. The actor Sean Penn, Katz argues, had a distorting effect on the relief effort and yet within two years of his arrival was named Haiti’s ambassador-at-large, with an influence “far beyond his qualifications or expertise”.
The book’s reportage is complemented by musings on the ethical dilemmas of journalism and the author’s gradual realisation that he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. More on these themes would have been worthwhile, alongside more detailed probing of the wasteful spending in Haiti by Washington-based groups.
His analysis of how to reconstruct and build a stronger economic future for the country can feel a little cursory. But he is surely right when he says that – in contrast to what happened in Haiti – those donating after disasters should find ways to support local governments and organisations, or at least groups with long experience in affected regions. As he concludes, poverty and lack of local institutions create the conditions for far worse disasters ahead.
Andrew Jack is the FT’s pharmaceuticals correspondent