'Big Truck' details disastrous Haiti aid effort

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By NAHAL TOOSI, Associated Press

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

After two and one-half years in Haiti, Jonathan Katz was preparing to leave the impoverished but endlessly intriguing nation in January 2010. His next reporting assignment: Afghanistan. Then, a massive earthquake ripped apart his house, his plans and the lives of Haitians all around him.

So Katz, then an Associated Press reporter and the only full-time American correspondent in Haiti, wound up staying to chronicle the aftermath of the temblor. Life in Afghanistan may have been more uplifting.

In "The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster," Katz eloquently blends personal anecdotes and Haitian history with in-depth reportage to show how one catastrophe led to so many more, and how, three years later, Haiti has barely moved forward.

At the heart of the book lies the question, does foreign aid actually work? Or, to paraphrase Katz, whatever happened to that $20 you sent to help the people of Haiti? The answers are not inspiring, and they should make people seriously think twice about donating to an international aid organization.

For people who live or work in conflict zones where non-governmental organizations and U.N.-linked aid groups operate, Katz's findings may not be that surprising, simply a reaffirmation of depressing truths. But the ordinary reader will likely be shocked to learn of some of the tricks of the aid trade.

For one thing, pledging money isn't the same as giving money, but governments around the world were quick to ignore that distinction when issuing their press releases about how they would save Haiti. Instead, billions of dollars pledged to help the quake-struck nation have yet to materialize, and the U.S. is no saint in this regard.

The billions promised to Haiti also included significant amounts in debt relief. But it's strange to count this as "aid," Katz argues. After all, for people living in rubble and scrounging for food, it's meaningless to hear that their government doesn't have to pay back money it didn't have in the first place.

When countries do give money, much of it goes to international aid organizations — the Red Crosses, the Save the Whatevers — whose spending habits are difficult to trace and often questionable. Such groups frequently spend extraordinary amounts on their own administrative costs, money that doesn't get anywhere near suffering Haitians.

Huge chunks of aid funds are spent on everything from SUVs to personal security guards to luxury hotel suites, not to mention many, many plane tickets, because, after all, aid workers are a peripatetic bunch. Many spend only a few weeks in a disaster zone, and the constant change in personnel means tremendous time is wasted getting newcomers up to speed.

An international aid worker who spends more than two years in a troubled country such as Haiti is what counts as exceptional. So much for institutional memory. Or getting to understand the people and what they need.

Even more direct government spending yielded some gems, Katz found. Why did the earthquake prompt the U.S. Coast Guard to spend $4,462 on a deep-fat fryer, Katz asks, noting that figure is years of income for the average Haitian. Then there was the $18,000 contract the U.S. Navy signed for a jungle gym from a Georgia company — which it could have bought for one-third the amount online.

Many of the contracts signed post-quake were with non-Haitian companies, which is understandable to a degree considering the lack of capacity in the struggling country. But, Katz argues, "it's misleading to call such spending 'money for Haiti,' especially when it gives the impression that any Haitian could have misappropriated or even profited from it. If anything, much of the money was a stimulus program for the donor countries themselves."

But what to do with your $20? Give it to the Haitians themselves? Katz, in effect, argues yes. Do research, find groups that have long-standing experience in Haiti with people who speak the local languages and actually understand the situation on the ground.

Katz also questions the conventional wisdom that the Haitian government is too corrupt to be entrusted with more of the money. He raises legitimate concerns about how people define corruption in Haiti and whether the definition is so broad that it is an impediment to strengthening the government in the long term.

Katz argues that the Haitian government has been so left out of the loop, and received so little direct aid, that it has not had a chance to prove its worth. It's a vicious cycle: The fact that so much of the money goes to groups outside the government keeps it from ever gaining strength, ability or the confidence of its people.

Sadly, this was the case long before the earthquake — aid groups have long proliferated in Haiti while the government is barely functional. The situation begs the question: Is their longevity in Haiti something aid organizations should boast of? After all, if they'd done their job, would they even need to be there anymore?

"The Big Truck That Went By" is hardly a statistical analysis or a mere policy book. It probably could have devoted a hundred more pages to the question of aid and remained riveting. Instead, Katz elegantly uses personal anecdotes and the stories of Haitians whose lives were turned upside down to paint a portrait of a struggling yet beguiling country.

He also includes dollops of history for the novices among us, background that anyone with a rosy view of U.S. intervention should read carefully. In one of the most interesting sections, Katz describes investigating what led to the cholera outbreak in Haiti months after the earthquake, proving almost beyond any doubt that the illness was imported by U.N. troops — something for which he says the world body has yet to be held accountable.

One hopes that the policymakers involved in helping Haiti read this book and take it to heart. The people of Haiti certainly deserve better than what they've been getting.

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Follow Nahal Toosi on Twitter at twitter.com/nahaltoosi.

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