To mark the third anniversary of the massive 2010 Haiti earthquake, we continue our conversation with Jonathan Katz, author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. He was the only full-time American reporter in Haiti when the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. In his new book, he examines explains where the massive international relief effort in Haiti went wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Jonathan Katz, author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. Jonathan is a former AP correspondent. He was in Haiti during the earthquake, the only full-time U.S. reporter in Haiti at the time. He lived there for four years.
Jonathan, the title of your book, The Big Truck That Went By, talk about it.
JONATHAN KATZ: It actually comes from a phrase in Creole, gwo machin ki pasé, “the big truck that went by.” It describes the sound of the earthquake. Part of the reason why people were using different names—and that was one of several that were going around after the quake—was because there wasn’t a lot of experience with earthquakes, even though there have been some in Haitian history. And so, people were just looking for a way to describe it.
But the two other pieces of it is I knew it would be evocative for, you know, readers in the States and elsewhere of the big aid effort that came through, and also, for me, it was evocative of the private trucks that would go through the city before the earthquake, because of the dissolution of the Haitian state, delivering basic services like water and power. And so, it sort of has a triple meaning.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We talked in the first part of the interview about the impact of President Clinton, but there were lots of celebrities that went to Haiti—Sean Penn and Wyclef Jean, of course, who’s a—the impact of these celebrities on the so-called—on the reconstruction effort?
JONATHAN KATZ: Well, it’s really interesting. I mean, Sean Penn, for instance, is actually a fascinating character. It’s not—you can’t simply write him off as being a celebrity who came in for a photo-op, and he’s certainly not. But that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be—once you take him seriously, it doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the conversation. You know, he came in. He had no experience with Haiti. He had very—he had no experience being an actual aid worker, that—he really became one. He had on-the-ground training. But in the process of that on-the-ground training, within weeks, he is a leader in the aid effort. In the cluster meetings at the United Nations base in Port-au-Prince, he’s taking a leading role. He’s being invited to testify before Congress about the situation in Haiti. You know, he was allowed to sort of skip all of the interim steps between being new to a field and then becoming a leader in the field, simply because of his celebrity in the States, but also because of the differential in power between foreigners—white foreigners—and Haitians. You know, he was able to come in and be more important in Haiti than nearly anybody else in Haiti, simply because he was an important person in a powerful country.
AMY GOODMAN: But explain what Sean Penn did. He ran a refugee camp of tens of thousands, saying the other refugee camps just weren’t working properly. When we visited Sean Penn, this was what he had to say in his camp just outside of Port-au-Prince.
SEAN PENN: Currently we’re functioning as camp management for the Pétionville Club camp, or what they call here Terrain de Golfe. We have 55,000 IDP population in a camp that’s about a hundred meters from here. And our job is to be principal coordinator of the other NGO actors in the camp and to advocate for the camp and to—we also function as a medical NGO and have a Class 3 hospital on site. And now, we’re currently beginning a project of—we had done the first primary relocation, but I’m careful to talk about that, because it’s—there’s approximately 1.8 million displaced people, and to date, there’s been a total of 7,000 people relocated citywide. And by “relocations,” we’re talking about getting people out of spontaneous camps and into planned camps, that have better security, better services, and they’re out of flood zones and that sort of thing. But long term, the idea is to get people either into returns, into neighborhoods, making those neighborhoods functional and giving them services, and—or for those camps on the outside to become, instead of considered planned camps, really to be model communities, and for, hopefully, you know, business, manufacturing, jobs to come into those areas, and to go from tents, temporary shelters, ultimately into housing, and hopefully into land ownership.
AMY GOODMAN: That was actor Sean Penn running a refugee camp in Haiti. Jonathan Katz?
JONATHAN KATZ: Yeah, I mean, he basically became the mayor of a village of, you know, tens of thousands of people, somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 people, depending on who’s counting and on what day. It’s an incredible amount of responsibility. And, you know—and I have to say, you know, I’ve talked to Sean Penn a number of times, and I think he took his responsibilities seriously. But he also didn’t shun the incredible amount of power that he was bestowed with.
One example that I talk about in the book—and this was fairly early on while he was still really learning the ropes—was that there was a very unfortunate case in which a young man, among the displaced people that he was overseeing, contracted diphtheria and died. And it was—it’s a tragedy; it was very sad. And Sean Penn, I think, did commendable work trying to get him help. In fact, he used his celebrity and his power to mobilize assistance for the young man in a way that nobody else, not even another aid worker, would have been able to do. But then, you know, focused on this one case, he took to the airwaves—I think he went on CNN—and, you know, really stirred up a bit of a panic about a pending diphtheria outbreak, which wasn’t happening and wasn’t likely, which, you know, allocated resources. It changed the dynamic on the ground. It was just an example of an error that a more experienced aid worker probably wouldn’t have made. And even though there is something to be said for being new and doing things in a different way than have been done so ineffectively before, you really have to—you really have to be careful. It’s so easy to come in in Haiti and step on toes and be a bull in a china shop.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Wyclef Jean and all the—all the controversy over whether his charity was actually doing what it said it was going to do?
JONATHAN KATZ: Yeah, Wyclef is another interesting guy. You know, he obviously briefly became a politician, probably had the inside track to being president of Haiti, had he not been excluded from the ballot right before the election in 2010. There were a lot of questions about his NGO, Yele Haiti, even at the time. Since then, even more revelations have come out that he was maybe pocketing money himself. He was using funds from the NGO to pay himself to do performances—you know, a lot of really ugly things. And the charity has been thoroughly discredited at this point. But, you know, he’s another—he’s another interesting character.
AMY GOODMAN: How was it thoroughly discredited?
JONATHAN KATZ: Well, because people—because of these disclosures that he had unpaid taxes, that it was using money, you know, to—perhaps to line his own pockets, or at least to help with his recording career, and not do what was promised, which was, you know, to help people on the ground in Haiti. You know, and ultimately—one of the most disappointing things about Yele is that it was looked at as being—you know, since it was run by a Haitian American, it was a Haitian NGO, that maybe it would be more on-the-ground and, you know, more direct assistance to the people who actually live there. But in many ways, it turned out to be worse than a lot of even, you know, the so-called Beltway bandits.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about Haiti as an example of how international aid works or, perhaps more importantly, doesn’t work. It’s three years after. The subtitle of your book, How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.
JONATHAN KATZ: I mean, part of the problem is that our conception of how foreign aid works is not how it actually happens. We imagine that, you know, powerful countries just have this pot of money, and that when they give foreign aid, they just hand it over to a poorer or vulnerable country, and that if there aren’t results on the ground, that something must have happened—the money must have gotten stolen, or there must have just been gross incompetence, and somebody put the pot somewhere and forgot where they left it, right? But that’s not really what happens.
You know, what ends up happening is the money is spent by the donor governments on their own agencies within their own governments. You know, as I’ve said, the money kind of goes in circles. It goes to priorities that the donors think are important, but are not necessarily actually the priorities that are most important on the ground, or at least are not the priorities that the people who live in these countries actually want. And very little effort is made to cross language barriers, to take into account these gross disparities in power. And so, you know, people come in, and oftentimes they have good intentions. Sometimes they have good intentions combined with their own profit motive. But what ends up happening is that the aid system is helped, the NGOs grow more powerful, the governments are able to, you know, circulate more money amongst themselves and amongst their own favored elements, but, you know, in the case of Haiti, as a really good example, the emergency situation becomes permanent. And every time there is a new crisis, and—the officials can say, “We can’t do it better this time. There’s no time. Let’s do it next time.” But then it never changes.
AMY GOODMAN: Your final conclusions, as you leave Haiti after four years, have written the book The Big Truck That Went By?
JONATHAN KATZ: I would say that there really is cause for optimism, because there is an opportunity—there’s always an opportunity to change the way things have been done and to do them better. But, you know, what I’ve seen and what the people that I’ve interviewed have said, who really know the situation, including, you know, aid workers from these major organizations who are on the ground, is that things have to change. And if things can start changing now, things will improve. But if foreign aid keeps being done in the way that it has been done and the situation in Haiti remains the way that it has been, we’re going to see more and more and more of these disasters, and possibly even a repeat of the tragedy of January 12th.
AMY GOODMAN: Jonathan Katz, I want to thank you for being with us. The book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. Former AP correspondent in Haiti, where he lived from 2007 to 2011. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.