The Times Literary Supplement

December 6, 2013

‘The Big Truck That Went By’

Jonathan M. Katz

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

320 pp. Palgrave Macmillan 16.99 (US $26)

978 0 230 34187 6

It is a measure of how much the world, and particularly the United States, had forgotten about Haiti that there was only one reporter for a major American news organization on the ground when the earthquake struck in 2010. Fortunately that reporter was Jonathan Katz, who covered the catastrophe for the Associated Press and has written this vivid, disturbing account of how international aid donors, the United Nations and celebrity do-gooders tripped over themselves to help but ended up doing more harm than good. Katz’s account is a catalogue of errors. When they distributed food in emergency camps, aid workers only encouraged Haitians to stay there instead of returning home to rebuild. When a relatively minor diphtheria outbreak made headlines, panicky donors overreacted and ignored a much more serious epidemic — cholera — which Katz was the first to report and which, he argues, was almost certainly brought to Haiti by Nepalese peacekeepers.

Somehow it was the Haitians themselves who took the blame for all this, Katz shows. The Western media continually accused Haitian officials of embezzling aid money — yet less than one percent of the billions in humanitarian aid passed through government hands, virtually all of it going to NGOs, private contractors or U.N. agencies. In any case, most of the pledged aid was never disbursed. Foreign donors came expecting chaos and looting, so they brought troops and security guards who overreacted to the slightest sign of trouble.

Katz is a bit foggy on how aid groups might have performed differently. They were too transient and wedded to their own assumptions to be effective, he argues, yet what was the alternative? Too little aid was channeled through the Haitian government, he suggests. Yet, as he also notes, 17 percent of Haiti’s civil service was killed and the presidential palace wrecked in the earthquake, making it hard to see how the government could have led the recovery. Still, it is hard to argue with Jonathan Katz’s assertion that in efforts to “prevent riots, ensure stability and prevent disease, the responders helped spark the first, undermined the second, and by all evidence caused the third.”

–Roger Atwood