Book Review:

April 1, 2013

The Big Truck That Went By

How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster


Published By: St. Martin's Press

On: January 8, 2013

Buy Here $18.0

Reviewed By: Kevin Suyo

Two tremors rumbled through the Republic of Haiti in January 2010. The first was an earthquake, unleashed by the clash of two tectonic plates at a fault line under Port-au-Prince. The strongest in recorded Caribbean history, and the deadliest, it left the National Palace in ruins and hundreds of thousands without shelter. The second came from the international community, which heeded the Haitian call for support and responded in force. Nations sent observers, technical experts, and security personnel. Haitian reconstruction—not just physical reconstruction, but economic, social, and institutional reconstruction—became a topic of support at United Nations summits. Ordinary citizens, Hollywood celebrities, foreign governments, international aid groups, and the United Nations joined together to systematically fix the most visible humanitarian crisis of the time.

But the system broke down. Donor states pledged over 16 billion dollars to aid the Haitian reconstruction effort, but much of that remained undelivered or delivered inefficiently. The aid delivery process stalled, hampered by mismanagement and a complex array of stakeholders— foreign governments, non-governmental organizations, business groups, and public personas—whose interests precluded effective coordination. In the more benign cases, the lack of organization led mainly to poor resource prioritization, resulting in overflows of aid to the higher-profile urban centers and a lack of support in more distant villages. At worst, it actively contributed to the destruction, as in the notorious post-quake scandal in which poor sanitation practices at a Nepali-staffed United Nations base led to an outbreak of cholera that killed over 7,500 Haitians and sparked an epidemic still being fought in some regions of the country today.1 The commotion was set against the backdrop of a presidential election process in which the front- runners competed for the unenviable task of building state capacity, planning the redevelopment of the nation’s infrastructure, wooing foreign investors, and placating aid donors without losing the support of the Haitian people themselves.

Associated Press reporter Jonathan Katz, the only American correspondent posted in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, covered these developments from Port- au-Prince until 2012. The stories he broke, from the initial disaster to the cholera outbreak to the raucous presidential election cycle, gave the world insight into the near-continuous stream of calamities on the ground. In The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, published in January by Palgrave MacMillan, Katz attempts to contextualize those accounts. It is a welcome effort, condensing three years of news reports into a highly readable and consistent narrative. Written for a general audience, he includes enough background for the lay reader but undergirds it with lines of reasoning recognizable to development theorists. One can discern, for example, the arguments of Hernando de Soto in a passage on the importance of land reform as a driver for economic growth, or the thoughts of Douglass North in a discussion on the nuances of institution building.

The resulting structure allows Katz to propose twin reasons for the current failure in Haiti. First, he claims that the implementation of the international aid and reconstruction effort was flawed: witness the inefficient flow of funds, the influence of media and special interests, and the lack of an enforcement mechanism to ensure that committed aid would actually be disbursed. Second, he takes issue with the methods used in the Haitian development effort and, by extension, with current development theories in general. This second argument is the more interesting of the two, if the less convincing; in it, Katz advances a left-leaning critique of the conventional Washington Consensus- style development agenda. The argument will be familiar to informed readers, but is still intriguing due to the vivid case study that Haiti affords.

Katz’s assessment of the reconstruction’s implementation is reasonable. The aid disbursement process stalled because the international aid community was complex and its stakeholders diverse. The United States feared that civil unrest, though unlikely, could encourage violence against foreigners and send the country sliding into crime and civil war; to prevent this, the U.S. government spent large amounts of money on security forces and engineered complex and inefficient methods of aid delivery to guard against such a threat.2 For-profit development agencies and suppliers clamored to win lucrative contracts. Individual Haitians, too, had their own system of incentives. Some sought to defraud aid workers by overstating the severity of their needs, others profited from price gouging schemes for gasoline and food, and still others took advantage of the loss of federal property records to claim stolen land or buildings.

Meanwhile, the massive influx of private donations—which accounted for a larger percentage of foreign aid than official foreign contributions in the weeks following the disaster—stressed the traditional funding pipeline to its breaking point. Many well-meaning donors gave to non-governmental organizations with noble but narrow mandates to provide humanitarian aid, not development assistance, and when those organizations felt compelled to spend the funds, the projects quickly fell victim to diminishing returns. “There are only so many times you can give someone a hygiene kit,” Katz writes.3 Just as problematic were the donated goods with little use, such as the cartons of “Danish hand puppets,” and goods with unintended side effects, such as the millions of water bottles which, when emptied, littered the country and clogged canals and natural waterways.4 Charity, though well-intentioned, caused deadlocks and backlogs in a system ill- equipped to handle such quantity and scale.

Even when used most effectively, Katz notes, quoting former Haitian President René Préval, charity alone “has never helped any country escape underdevelopment.”5 For that, a country needs support designed to lead to self- sufficiency. Instead, Katz argues, the international community’s Haitian development strategy to a large degree depends on turning the country into a low-wage hub for the benefit of Western businesses, with little regard for the ultimate welfare of Haitians themselves. He targets former World Bank economist Paul Collier as chief architect of this approach, based primarily on Collier’s role in writing the influential 2009 report “Haiti: From Natural Catastrophe to Economic Security,” a pre-quake guide for creating economic growth in the nation by capitalizing on the country’s low wages and abundance of low-skill workers to attract foreign direct investment and build an export economy.6

Katz’s critique focuses on the understated value of the Haitian informal economy and the potential short-term reduction in wages among workers at foreign-owned factories. However, he does not address how this relates to economic development in the long term. A shift away from the informal sector as well as temporary drops in the real wage may naturally occur during periods of structural adjustment; this does not necessarily imply economic weakness. Moreover, such an appraisal ignores the more fundamental and legitimate criticisms of Collier’s approach. There is a real risk, for example, of such an economy falling prey to a vicious cycle of low earnings, economic insecurity, and exploitative industry, as demonstrated by the garment industry’s systematic abuse of labor and reliance on “sweatshops” in Mexico and elsewhere from the 1970s onward.7 This risk vastly increases in a nation without a competent network of lawyers, administrators, and policymakers with the expertise to design and maintain sufficient labor and business regulations, something that Haiti certainly lacked in 2010. If these issues can be managed, however—and Collier surely thought that they could, given the great attention shown to Haitian reconstruction post- disaster—foreign direct investment can increase capital inflows, facilitate skill transfer, and catalyze further business development within both the direct supply chain and the industry, such as in the case of Intel in Costa Rica during the late 1990s.8

One of Katz’s alternatives to foreign direct investment-led development involves direct monetary transfers to the Haitian government to fund basic public services, like sanitation and security, which would not only ensure their provision but enable the regime to bolster its legitimacy and reputation for competence. The resulting increase in stability and decrease in political risk could stimulate private sector growth. The international community recognized this effect, but the interested stakeholders opted to wait to provide significant direct budget support until the greatest risk of doing so—the loss of funds to corruption—had been mitigated. Katz argues that the threat of corruption was overstated. He claims, for example, that the metrics used in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index were biased against developing nations because they rely not on hard data but on the possibly self-fulfilling “perception” of foreigners. However, Transparency International has acknowledged such criticisms, and this point merely counters one “perception” with another—Katz’s—rather than any sort of empirical evidence. He notes, too, that developed countries are also guilty of possible “corrupt” activities, citing the not-uncommon practice of U.S. officials in top government jobs joining the private sector to start business relationships with their former agencies.9 But again, while this may ascribe possible evidence of corruption, broadly defined, to the United States, it does little to support the assertion that the Haitian government is free enough of corruption to be able to responsibly handle hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid. Nevertheless, direct budget support is a valid approach, and Katz seems to err not on the idea, but only on the timing: in the summer of 2012, the United Nations announced that it would begin to provide more funding directly to the Haitian government.10

Katz is a journalist, not a policy formulator, and his ultimate task is not to recommend actions but to remind the world where its actions have failed. In this, he succeeds. The Big Truck That Went By is a beautifully illustrated case study in modern development and humanitarian aid response. He is too quick, perhaps, in assuming shady motives of key actors, a trait befitting a reporter more than a development analyst—and one that he begrudgingly acknowledges.11 His most salient point may be that in the Haitian development effort, as in all development scenarios, motives matter less than outcomes. If nations engage in development assistance in part because of a perceived moral imperative to help others, they must accept the equivalent moral imperative to learn the most effective ways of doing so. It is Katz’s frustration with the global community’s neglect of that second imperative that leads him to watch world leaders attempting the same failed policies in scenario after scenario and dejectedly claim that Haiti, despite all of the effort, “is not better off.”12 Yet he maintains the hope that kept him in the country for two years after the quake, a hope that if only aid and development organizations understood where their actions need improvement, then real progress could be made. It is an admirable thought.

Notes & References

  1. Jonathan Katz, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), 244.
  2. Ibid., 80.
  3. Ibid., 206.
  4. Ibid., 79.
  5. Ibid., 10.
  6. Ibid., 140.
  7. John Kline, Ethics for International Business: Decision Making in a Global Political Economy (New York: Routledge, 2005), 87.
  8. Theodore Moran, Beyond Sweatshops: Foreign Direct Investment and Globalization in Developing Countries (Washington: Brookings, 2002), 38.
  9. Katz, The Big Truck That Went By, 127-8.
  10. UN Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti, “Has Aid Changed? Channeling Assistance to Haiti Before and After the Earthquake,” 2011.
  11. Katz, The Big Truck That Went By, 145.
  12. Ibid., 2.
Kevin Suyo is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where he studied International Economics, and an alumnus of the Karl F. Landegger Program in International Business Diplomacy. He currently works on higher education financing issues at the US Department of Education in Washington, DC, and writes on matters related to economic development, public management, and corporate social responsibility.