By Justin Birmingham
As part of its discussion series, the Haiti Research and Policy Program at the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development welcomed author and journalist Jonathan M. Katz to discuss his new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came To Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster and his views of the shortcoming of foreign aid in Haiti.
As the only full-time American journalist in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, Katz’s book documents the reconstruction process over the year following the disaster. In his book, Katz documents the daily challenges and struggles that Haitians faced both before and after the earthquake. The book also examines the impact of the large influx of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that arrived in Haiti for disaster relief; Katz argues many were only offering temporary solutions as band-aids for the larger problem, resulting in wasteful spending and little systemic improvement.
Since 2010, Katz argued that reconstruction efforts have been incomplete, inconsistent, and largely inadequate. He noted that the promise of “building back better” has largely been abandoned. This led to his conclusion that the residents and infrastructure in Port au Prince are equally vulnerable today to natural disasters as they were prior to the 2010 earthquake.
In conversation with Dr. Tatiana Wah, director of the Haiti Research and Policy Program, Katz suggested that a large portion of this aid money would have been better off in the hands of the Haitian government and Haitian institutions than well-intentioned foreign NGOs. Capacity building for Haitians in Haiti was a neglected opportunity from among the millions invested, Katz emphasized. According to Katz, the U.S. government spent $49 million to send a rescue team to Haiti immediately after the earthquake—a team which ultimately saved 47 lives in the days after the earthquake. Katz suggested to Wah and the audience that more lives could be saved in future disasters if instead funding was invested in Haitian institutions to build their own capacity for effective emergency response.
Responding to questions from the audience, Katz reflected on this pattern of aid and NGO behavior that shows up in disaster recovery all over the world, not just in the extreme case of Haiti. As another example of funding priorities founded on feelings rather than fact, Katz pointed to the increased security presence led by UN peacekeepers and NGOs in disaster areas, on the assumption that chaos and rioting will immediately ensue after a disaster. This mischaracterization of disaster zones persists, despite the fact that history has shown that this rarely ever happens.
While some people truly do rely on the humanitarian relief provided by many NGOs for basic survival, Katz argued at the event, and in his book, as donors went around Haitian institutions once again, there was simply too much aid money spent with too little positive impact.
The money donated for Haiti has become a missed opportunity, according to Katz.
Despite being the focus of the world immediately after the earthquake, the billions in funding were not disbursed promptly or responsibly, and ultimately did not result in meaningful approaches or solutions to Haiti’s many development challenges. Katz’s conclusion, based on his experience and research, is that the true fix to Haiti’s problems must come through its own government and civil society, with help from, but not the supplanting of, foreign aid organizations.
Justin Birmingham is a second-year Mechanical Engineering undergraduate who interns at the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability (EICES).
This roundtable discussion is part of the Haiti Research and Policy Program‘s dialogue series, hosted by Dr. Tatiana Wah and Alex Fischer. The aim of the series is to reexamine the prevailing public thought, scientific research and discourse around development in Haiti in order to create a space for innovative approaches to Haiti’s future through critical and collaborative dialogue. For more information, visit: www.cgsd.columbia.edu/haiti