The Big Truck That Went By
Why have well-intentioned foreigners done so little for post-quake Haiti?
The numbers are not inspiring: Six months after the United States pledged $1.15 billion to Haiti in response to the 2010 earthquake, not one dime had arrived in the country. Three years after the magnitude-7.0 quake, with 100,000 Haitians still living as squatters, a $15.7 million Best Western is one of the countryâ€™s most significant new building projects.
A book telling only this story would be worth reading. The Big Truck That Went By, by former Associated Press writer Jonathan Katz, does this and much more.
Katz starts with what becomes a parable: the story of a private school called La Promesse (â€śThe Promiseâ€ť), built in the wealthy Haitian hilltop suburb of PĂ©tionville but attended by kids from the slum below. It was no secret that the school was poorly built. Even before it collapsed in 2008, killing 93 (mostly children), â€śparents living along the ridge could see what was happening, but they were in no position to complain.â€ť Anyway, â€śmost had built their homes the same [shoddy] way.â€ťÂ
In fact, most of the country was built that way, as Katz learned firsthand. He was living in that suburb â€“ the only American journalist permanently based in Haiti â€“ when the earthquake struck in January 2010. His retelling of that moment is gripping. He heard a rumble; his bed shook. â€śMedicine bottles, suntan lotion, and bug spray shimmied on the round black table I always left cluttered because Iâ€™d never counted on staying in Haiti long enough to need a dresser.â€ť
Everything is thrown against everything else. â€śThere was a contest between the up and down and the side to side,â€ť he writes. Minutes later, a colleague gets him out.
Katz doesnâ€™t linger long on his personal story. Just a few pages later, weâ€™re listening to the pitched wails of mourning. â€śI had only ever heard Haitian women make that sound, and only ever standing before the worst thing in the world: the collapse of a home, the death of a child,â€ť Katz writes. â€śNow it came from everywhere.â€ť
Haiti had seen its share of natural disasters, but the wealthy had rarely suffered. This earthquake leveled off economic advantage: â€ś[G]reat government ministries and posh hotels had crumbled alongside the meanest cinder-block homes. The homes and apartments of embassy workers had collapsed along with the supermarkets and gyms they had frequented.â€ť
But the equalizing power of nature lasted only until the world powers intervened. Foreign rescue privileged privilege: In one of his most heartbreaking stories, Katz writes about a young girl Haitian workers didnâ€™t have the tools to rescue. Just over the hill, at a posh hotel favored by foreigners, six rescue teams led by an ex-Army Ranger were assisting trapped hotel guests.
In Haiti it all depends on whetherÂ you live in or outside â€śthe blan bubble.â€ť â€śBlanâ€ť is Creole for â€śwhite,â€ť but it denotes all foreigners, whose power and means allow them to live in near-isolation from the Haitians theyâ€™ve come to help.
What stands out in this critique of expat communities and development is Katzâ€™s declarative tone. He refuses judgment, even as his observations indict the system in which they work. He forces a confrontation with the hubris and double standards of international aid, yet heâ€™s anything but haughty.
Thereâ€™s deft background on Haiti here, and coverage of the postelection quake. Thereâ€™s original investigative reporting about land grabs after the earthquake and thereâ€™s a chapter on cholera in Haiti and the UNâ€™s acrobatic denial of culpability for the epidemic. Thereâ€™s only passing mention of sexual violence (perhaps the bookâ€™s biggest weakness).
What there is, however, is a critique made more powerful by the perspective it includes. Katz combines the knowledge of Haiti he built over 3-1/2 years working there with his understanding of outsidersâ€™ clichĂ©s about poor, impoverished countries.
He writes about the assumption pervasive in aid work, that governments are too corrupt to handle funding themselves. â€śThe irony was that, by keeping the money under their own control, the donors reinforced the perception of systemic Haitian corruption,â€ť Katz writes. Donorsâ€™ irresponsibility reinforced Haitiansâ€™ view of the same: â€śIf money was pledged but not received, [Haitians] assumed their leaders had stolen it.â€ť
If there is a hero in this book, it may be the beleaguered and prophetic former Haitian president, RenĂ© PrĂ©val. After the collapse of the school in Petionville, PrĂ©val had given an ill-attended talk at the United Nations, warning that his country was structurally unsound. â€śHe had known, he had warned, and he had been powerless to stop it.â€ť
International assistance since the earthquake hasnâ€™t altered that reality. Instead, it has reinforced it. The most powerful people in Haiti are foreignÂ donors, unaccountable to and unelected by Haitians, who, like the parents living below La Promesse, are made mere observers of the disasters they too easily see coming.
Jina Moore is a Monitor correspondent.