The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster

Billions of dollars and more than three years after a massive earthquake rumbled through the western part of Haiti, the country is no better off today than it was then. Why? That's one of the questions Jonathan M. Katz, the only American full-time news correspondent stationed in the country at the time, seeks to answer in his new book The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.

Katz, then a reporter and editor for the Associated Press, had been living in Haiti for two and a half years on the January day in 2010 when a magnitude 7.0 quake leveled portions of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding region. "When the shockwave surged through Port-au-Prince, just fifteen miles from the epicenter," he writes in the introduction to the book, "many of us thought at first that it was a gwo machin, a big truck, going by." But as he and the residents of the city would soon learn, they had just experienced the deadliest quake ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere.

Before Katz gives an account of what happened next, he takes the reader on a brief trip through the country's history. It's not a pretty story. Occupying the western third of the island of Hispaniola, the five mountainous provinces that now comprise Haiti were inhabited by the Tano people at the time of Columbus' first voyage to the Americas. Columbus claimed the entire island for Spain before re-crossing the Atlantic, and within a few decades the native Tano population had been overwhelmed by Spanish gold- and land-seekers. The Spanish brought enslaved Africans to the island to work their haciendas in the sixteenth century, and the descendants of those slaves, inspired by the French Revolution, rose against their French masters (the French and Spanish had battled for control of the island in the seventeenth century and finally agreed to a division of the island in 1697 under the Treaty of Ryswick), in the 1790s, eventually gaining their emancipation and independence for the country in 1804.

Haiti in the nineteenth century was beset by conflict and meddling by foreign powers, including France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States. In 1915, the Wilson administration, seeking to "create markets for U.S. businesses, check the territorial ambitions of European empires, and spread American-style democracy," landed more than three hundred Marines at Port-au-Prince and occupied the country. FDR ended the occupation in 1934, and Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo responded by ordering his army to kill or remove Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border between the two countries that had been established by the Americans.

The so-called Parsley Massacre was followed by two decades of political instability in Haiti, culminating in 1957 in the election of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier as president. Over the next three decades, Katz writes, Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, ruled Haiti as their personal fiefdom, sucking "what little economic power remained in Haiti into the capital" and causing "generations of professionals, businessmen, and leaders" to leave the country. Protests by an increasingly impoverished Haitian population finally forced Jean-Claude Duvalier into exile in 1986, and in 1990 Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, was elected president of the country with more than two-thirds of the vote. But Aristide had powerful enemies among Haiti's business and military elite and he was driven into exile in 1991. More meddling by the U.S., both in opposition to and on behalf of Aristide, eventually led to his return, and he completed his term as president in 1996. Aristide was succeeded in office by René Préval, who served two non-consecutive terms as president of Haiti, from February 1996 to February 2001 and again from May 2006 May 2011, and was in office when the January 2010 earthquake struck.

According to Katz, it was this long history of political instability and the unchecked sprawl in and around Port-au-Prince, which sits above an active geologic fault, that more than anything contributed to the humanitarian disaster which happened next. Donning his reporter's hat, Katz reports that in the hours and days after the quake, Haiti was less "helpless" than those watching from the comfort of their living rooms in other countries might have thought. Yes, many Haitians with money tried to leave the country, but most Haitians had no choice but to dig in and get on with their lives. In contrast, Préval — who in 2008, after two hurricanes and two tropical storms had battered the country in the space of a few months, addressed a session of the UN General Assembly to argue for a more effective reconstruction strategy "that would make aid unnecessary" — remained silent and curiously passive. As Katz, who both sympathizes with and blames Haiti's fifty-fifth president, writes, that's because "no one understood better than Préval what had just happened or what was to come."

What did Préval know that others didn't? As Katz writes, Préval was worried, as he had said in 2008, that once the "first wave of solidarity and human compassion has dried up, we will be left, as always, alone...to deal with new catastrophes and to see restarted, as if in a ritual, the same exercises of mobilization."

That concern was echoed by then-U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who warned at an earthquake-relief conference in the spring of 2010 that the donor community had a responsibility to "do things differently [in Haiti]. It will be tempting to fall back on old habits, to work around the government rather than to work with them as partners, or to fund a scattered array of well-meaning projects rather than making the deeper, long-term investments that Haiti needs now. We cannot retreat to failed strategies. I know we've heard these imperatives before: the need to coordinate our aid, hold ourselves accountable, share our knowledge, track results. But now, we cannot just declare our intentions. We have to follow through and put them into practice."

But that didn't happen. Indeed, much of the roughly $16.3 billion pledged for relief and recovery efforts in Haiti "was never meant for Haitian consumption," Katz writes, and as "humanitarian relief spending continued to trickle [in] through 2010, adding up in the end to $2.43 billion...at least 93 percent would go right back to the [United Nations] or [nongovernmental organizations] to pay for supplies and personnel, or never leave the donor states at all." What's more, says Katz, "[d]espite the emphasis donors placed on...transparency, most of the money turned out to be very difficult to trace; 6 percent — $151 million — couldn't be accounted for at all. Just 1 percent — slightly more than $24 million — went to the Haitian government. Had Préval or parliament stolen every cent of their share, and there's no indication they did, it would have made little difference."

In the book's epilogue, Katz — who left Haiti after a year of covering the post-quake response — addresses some of the questions he raised in the early days of his reporting, such as "What should we do differently next time?" and "Should we bother giving the next time a disaster strikes Haiti?" His answer to the latter is "yes." But then he qualifies his answer, saying that by then "we will have waited too long. Donations toward immediate relief will bring doctors and rescuers when people are still pinned under concrete, stranded by floodwaters, or fleeing the firestorm." And while that is important, "[it is] now, in the...time between emergencies, when the heaviest lifting has to be done."

Indeed, if we really want to help developing countries like Haiti after a disaster, Katz writes, more money has to flow to local governments and businesses. "[E]fforts to give aid directly to local governments, and the goal of building local institutions that operate independently of foreign control, will go exponentially further than cargo planes of tarps and bottled water." Nor should we assume that development aid to developing countries, even one as poor and as prone to corruption as Haiti, will wind up in the hands of politicians — and, if it does, that they will misspend it. It's true, writes Katz, "that we don't always know what locals will do with that assistance, but that's the point. It's up to them."

Last but not least, Katz recommends that each of us needs to make an effort to learn more "about how our day-to-day decisions can affect people in places we only think about when a big-enough tragedy strikes." For example, he writes,

The low-wage Haitian garment industry would not exist as it does today, nor would it have played so problematic a role in the reconstruction, if American consumers were willing to pay more for their clothes. It's not enough to say that underpaid jobs with a destructive track record are "better than nothing." We have to understand the assets people in countries like Haiti already have, and how best to protect them, even if doing so means making decisions that might be uncomfortable for us in the short run....

If there's one takeaway for me from Katz's experience in Haiti, it is this: Our personal everyday decisions and our failure to follow through on our commitments at a national level have had, and will continue to have, an inordinate impact on developing countries like Haiti. Therefore, it is up to us, all of us, to do whatever is necessary to avoid making the same mistakes the next time disaster strikes. Because, as we all know, it's only a matter of time before it does.

Regina Mahone
Staff Writer, PND
Foundation Center
New York, New York