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How the World Came to Save Haiti

and Left Behind a Disaster

by Jonathan Katz

In those desperate days after the Haitian earthquake of January 2010 there was still hope — hope that some good could come from the deadliest natural disaster of modern times.

People across the world gave billions of dollars for emergency aid. Their governments pledged billions more for reconstruction. The talk was all of “building back better”. President Obama solemnly told the Haitian people: “You will not be forsaken. You will not be forgotten. In this, your hour of need, America stands with you.”

Three years on, that optimism has been replaced by a sense of betrayal. Much of the $16 billion promised never materialised. Some 350,000 Haitians still live in wretched camps.

“We hoped the country would change and we’d have a different life. But we’re still here without hope,” a homeless musician laments at the end of The Big Truck That Went By, an account of the earthquake and its aftermath by Jonathan Katz, the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti at the time.

The book includes a compelling first-hand description of the quake itself, and the utter devastation that Katz witnessed. It also makes a decent stab at explaining the book’s subtitle: “How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.”

This is a book without heroes: not Bill Clinton, the UN special envoy to Haiti; not Sean Penn, the Hollywood star who runs a huge camp there; not René Préval, the reclusive President, and certainly not the international community and its competing, self-aggrandising NGOs.

Foreign governments failed to fulfil their pledges. Much of the promised money was never delivered, or double counted, or spent at home, or was unspendable debt relief. Much went on support and logistics, such as the $1 million a day it cost to keep the USS Carl Vinson off the coast, the $3.6 million the US Coast Guard spent servicing its helicopters, or the $50,000 spent on “elevator maintenance” in a country with practically no lifts. The NGOs lacked the capacity to spend most of the $3 billion they received for emergency aid.

Aid workers hid themselves away in Logbase — Port-au-Prince’s equivalent of Baghdad’s Green Zone. They were rotated out every few weeks. They largely bypassed the Haitian Government instead of working with it. They delivered emergency aid to the camps, not to stricken neighbourhoods, thereby ensuring the exponential growth of those camps.

Their food handouts undermined Haitian farmers and vendors. They largely gave up on the construction of new housing — defeated by the impossibility of determining land ownership when the land registry had clear title for only 5 per cent of Haiti’s territory.

Katz is also damning about the economic recovery strategy adopted by Mr Clinton and others. It centred on the development of a garment industry whose foreign owners repatriate their profits and exploit their workers. “It wasn’t jobs that Haiti lacked,” the author notes. “It was stable, sustainable incomes — something the garment plan would do little to provide.” The one thing that the international community did give Haiti was cholera, Katz notes wryly. It was imported by Nepalese UN peacekeepers in late 2010 and caused another 7,500 deaths. The UN has evaded responsibility.

Katz advises donors to choose their charities carefully.

This being Christmas, let me suggest one. Haiti Hospital Appeal (HHA) was founded by two British drama students in 2006. After the quake it established Haiti’s first emergency spinal cord unit, which uses sport for rehabilitation. Last summer it brought Leon Gaisli, who lost his wife, eight children and the use of his legs in the earthquake, to London to compete in the Paralympics, thereby inspiring thousands of other Haitians.

Now HHA is opening Haiti’s first purpose-built sports centre for disabled athletes. It does not pursue grand schemes that are designed to change the world but end up helping no one, but it transforms the lives of those it does help.

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