On Jan. 12, 2010, Jonathan Katz, the only full-time American news correspondent in Haiti, was sitting in his home, preparing to ship out in a few weeks time for his next assignment. Within seconds, the ground beneath him began to shake and everything changed.
In his new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How The World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, Katz lays out a hard-hitting critique of the rescue efforts that followed the quake and why good intentions were simply not good enough. The book forces us rethink aid and how the development enterprise shifted the balance of power from Haitians to Westerners during the response and subsequent reconstruction, only to exacerbate historical injustices.
With over $16.3 billion made in pledges to help Haiti recover after the quake, and very little ever transferred to the government, Katz investigates what went wrong in such a massive aid endeavor. He describes what a cruel twist of fate it was for Haiti to experience such a disastrous event, after so many years of extreme poverty, political corruption, dilapidated infrastructure, and foreign meddling – only to have such an uncoordinated humanitarian response, which often bypassed those that were most in need.
The Big Truck gives us a deeply personal account of the trauma hundreds of thousands faced, including himself, following the earthquake. He chronicles much of the narrative that was left out of mainstream reporting in the immediate aftermath. While rumors spread in the press of massive looting and rioting, the realities on the ground were much different. Communities themselves did a phenomenal job at rescuing as many people as possible from under the rubble during the most critical days after the quake, as they waited for help to arrive. In light of a destroyed physical environment, there was tremendous social resilience among the Haitian people themselves.
Though many foreigners, particularly doctors and healthcare workers, arrived in Haiti following the quake and performed essential, lifesaving work, Haiti still needed permanent clinics and hospitals that could continually serve the needs of the population. Katz lays out the irony that prior to the quake, many Haitians had never experienced such high quality (or free) healthcare.
On Feb. 1, 2013, at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Katz discussed the many challenges humanitarian agencies and NGOs faced in the aftermath of the quake, as well as the “celebritocracy” that followed. Actors, musicians and artists started their own NGOs, many with little prior experience in Haiti, logistical operations, or humanitarian relief work.
During the talk, Katz spoke about one of the worst man-made disasters ever to follow a natural one: the massive cholera epidemic that has now killed over 8,000 Haitians since 2010 and infected more than 647,000. Katz chronicles in his book how U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal inadvertently transmitted cholera to thousands of Haitians through a poor and faulty sanitation system. Katz details his own investigation in The Big Truck, including the U.N. cover-up and the attempted denial about the source of the outbreak. (Update: As of last week, the U.N. refused to offer compensation to the victims).
The Big Truck challenges many of us to confront the tough questions about human rights and the current aid structures. Humanitarian responses must be incorporated into a more collaborative aid system, one in which the aid providers and the recipients work closely together. One of the greatest challenges for those studying international development is to understand the historical and current lessons of where development aid has gone wrong, and how collectively we should set out to transform the system and make it work for the people it is trying to help.
Julia Leis is a first-year master student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, concentrating on international business relations, natural resource policy and human security. She previously worked in Thailand and Chicago on issues related to sustainable agriculture, food security, and community organizing.
PRAXIS: The Fletcher Journal of Human Security, Humanitarian Action Society and International Development Group sponsored a book talk and discussion with Jonathan Katz on Feb. 1, 2013, at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
 Peter Uvin, “On Moral High Ground: The Incorporation of Human Rights by the Development Enterprise,” PRAXIS: The Fletcher Journal of Human Security, Vol. 7, 2002, http://fletcher.tufts.edu/Praxis/Archives/~/media/Fletcher/Microsites/praxis/xvii/Uvin.pdf.