Haiti Three Years After the Earthquake: An Interview with Jonathan M. Katz

by Jonathan M. Katz

Jonathan M. Katz is the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came To Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and is a Barnes & Noble ‘Discover Great New Writers’ book for 2013. He was the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti from 2007 to 2011.  

In a conversation with The Fletcher Forum, Jonathan M. Katz reflects on the humanitarian efforts in post-quake Haiti, how they have largely failed, and what the international community can learn from these failures to improve humanitarian responses in the future.

As you note in your book, the world spent more than $5.2 billion on the emergency relief effort in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that befell Haiti in 2010. Today in Haiti, there are still an estimated 400,000 people living in post-quake camps, and political paralysis, the scale of devastation, and a trickle of aid have stymied reconstruction efforts. How did such a massive humanitarian effort with such good intentions fail so miserably in Haiti?

One problem is that the responders weren’t clear about their goals in the first place. If the goal was to “save lives,” as it was often nebulously put, the emergency response was a mixed bag: international rescuers, arriving too slowly and hamstrung by phantom security concerns, pulled a miniscule number of people from the rubble (at most around 211, compared to an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 dead). Doctors and surgeons helped considerably more. The success or failure in providing food and water is almost impossible to judge, because, despite a lot of aid-group advertising to the contrary, nobody bothered to figure out whether a food or water crisis was even in the offing. We can safely say that the way aid was distributed—a pervasive lack of coordination, overly concentrated in a few small pockets of the quake zone—set the stage for problems to come. Most critically, the donor countries continued their pattern of spending nearly all their aid money at home. When foreign doctors left, tarps frayed, and donated food ran out, there was little left to show for it.

The conversation now is more about longer-term goals—“building back better,” as the Clintonian slogan had it. That also seems to have fallen short; the number of people still living in temporary encampments (many of whom only move when they are violently expelled, and then have nowhere better to go) is only one sign. But again, we have to ask: What were the intentions? Washington’s reconstruction strategy has been primarily to establish Haiti as a source of exports to the United States—particularly garments, and to a lesser extent agriculture and tourism. Halting progress has been made toward that goal in a few limited places, if sometimes at the expense of other social indicators. There has been far less effort made to put stable roofs over a significant number of heads, or to foster a self-sufficient Haitian economy and government that can operate without heavily subsidized foreign goods and the presence of a UN peacekeeping force. So another possible answer is that our intentions were not what we think they were.

In your book you argue that the relief effort indeed failed, and in some ways became a disaster itself. Would Haitians have been better off without Western assistance?

The relationship between Haiti and the outside world didn’t start at 4:53 p.m. on January 12, 2010—the moment the earthquake struck. The effects of decades of policies, both benevolent and otherwise, played a critical role in setting the stage for that disaster. So if despite the deaths of hundreds of foreigners and their own policy prerogatives (such as trying to prevent an exodus of refugees), the United States, France, and other powers had thrown up their hands and said, “You’re on your own,” the effects of decades of foreign interventions—“Western assistance,” if you will—would still have been felt.

That said, it’s false to argue that the only alternative to doing a job badly is to not do it at all. Haiti would obviously have been better off had UN soldiers not sloughed sewage into a river and sparked a cholera epidemic that has killed 8,000 people and sickened two-thirds of a million. That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have used more help clearing the epic amounts of rubble left behind by the earthquake. Both can be true. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Haiti is very much a part of the West, and has been since its inception—it’s a former French colony, closer to the U.S. mainland than Hawaii or even Puerto Rico, and the second oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere behind the United States. There are close to a million people of Haitian descent living in the United States, with hundreds of thousands more in Canada, France, and elsewhere. We have a lot of history in common. Our economies are intertwined. We’re fully involved. That’s not going to change.

How much of the failure in Haiti was due to an interventionist attitude on behalf of the aid agencies? And how could outside agencies and NGOs have more effectively made their relief efforts Haitian-led?

The first thing would have been to involve Haitians in decision-making at all. As I discuss in my book, the humanitarian “cluster” meetings of NGOs and aid groups were functionally and officially closed off from most Haitians. Held in English behind nigh-impenetrable security barriers, only a handful of high-ranking Haitian officials could attend, and those officials were stretched so thin and kept so much to the margins of the discussion that they ultimately had little input. Those meetings played a major role in Sean Penn’s rise within the humanitarian world, for instance. They could have facilitated the rise of some Haitian players as well, or instead. That attitude persists, and it can still change now. In fact it’s not a question of making “their relief efforts Haitian-led” at all, any more than the response to the 2011 Joplin, Mo., tornado should have been about making “German efforts American-led.” It’s about allowing for and fostering Haitian efforts, so that Haitians can be in charge of responding to their own crises.

It seems there was a major hesitancy on the part of Western donors to give aid money directly to the Haitian government in the aftermath of the quake. Should donor nations have invested more directly in the Haitian government, or were fears of corruption well founded and impossible to work around?

Foreign legislatures and frequently the public insist that “foreign assistance” be spent primarily at home, and that donors rather than recipients make decisions on how it is used. Corruption—which is a real, if often poorly understood problem—is often used as an excuse to keep that status quo. Yet nearly everyone agrees that ultimately Haitians have to manage their own recovery and reconstruction. Those two ideas are contradictory. Again, corruption is real. But one way to fight corruption is to equip Haitian institutions to combat it, whether by paying state employees enough to obviate the need for bribes, or to combat it directly with internal regulators and inspectors general. Pretty much the worst thing you can do in the face of government feebleness is to circumvent the government, weakening it further. This is widely known. But then Congress calls, and insists that the money remain with contractors at home, and we’re back to square one.

In your book you mention former Haitian President René Préval’s evocative statement at the UN that “charity has never helped any country escape underdevelopment.” Do you agree? And do you think the role charity plays in disaster relief is a necessarily negative one in the Haitian case?

If by charity one means spontaneous gifts given from one government or people to another, I don’t know of a case where that played a major role in economic development. But as Préval also knew, the role of charity in the Haitian context is overstated. Americans who gave money after the 2008 storms or the 2010 earthquake, by and large, gave to U.S.-based charities such as the American Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders USA. Over the long run, that kind of giving did have a negative impact because it contributed to the weakening of Haitian institutions. For example, some private Haitian clinics and hospitals were put out of business by competition from free clinics provided by the aid groups. Free food often undercuts local agriculture, and so on. Now obviously if you were someone whose arterial bleed was stopped by a Cuban doctor donating his services, or if your family enjoyed a free meal prepared by an American church group, I’m sure you appreciated it. It’s not all or nothing. But if the question is whether free tarps and hygiene classes from the Red Cross are going to bring Haiti onto economic par with Uruguay, then no, probably not.

How can the international community and/or the Haitian government be more effective at holding aid agencies and governments accountable for their aid commitments?

The Haitian government has very little leverage. Michel Martelly owes his presidency to the intervention of the Obama administration and the Organization of American States, which pressured his predecessor’s government to put him back into a presidential election he would otherwise have been eliminated from. He also, like all recent Haitian presidents, knows full well that he benefits from the protection of thousands of UN peacekeepers whose primary role is to keep him from being overthrown in a coup. That is likely a major reason why he has stopped calling for the UN to be held accountable for starting the cholera epidemic. As for whether the international community can be more effective about holding itself accountable, that’s really up to the donor governments. If they want to hold themselves accountable, they will.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton joined Haitian President Michel Martelly this January to mark the disaster’s third anniversary. In comments to reporters, Clinton expressed hope about Haiti’s future, noting “I think that you will see, particularly in the economic sphere, a lot more in the coming year, where Haiti is projected to have the highest growth rate in the Caribbean.” How do you feel about these projections? Are we finally starting to see the tide turn in Haiti? Is there cause for optimism?

There’s always cause for optimism. So long as people are still alive and trying to make their lives better, there’s always a chance they will succeed. I think it’s worth taking Clinton’s comments with a grain of salt though. First of all, projections are just that. The IMF expected Haiti’s economy to grow 4.5 percent last year. Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, and likely economic losses stemming from slower-than-expected reconstruction activity and the cholera outbreak, it came in at 2.5. If GDP really can grow at seven or eight percent this year, that can be a good thing, so long as the benefits are felt by a significant number of Haitians and not just a few well-connected businessmen and offshore companies. But Clinton has been boosterish before. In 2009, when he became UN Special Envoy, he said that “Haiti, not withstanding the total devastation wreaked by the four storms last year, has the best chance to escape the darker aspects of its history in the thirty-five years that I have been going there.” In 2010, after the earthquake, he said it again: “This is the best chance they’ve ever had to escape the chains of the past.” Maybe if he keeps saying it, it’ll eventually become true.

What are the biggest lessons learned from the failure of relief efforts in Haiti for humanitarian response in the future?

Be accountable. Set clear goals and try to meet them, and be honest when you fail. Allow the people you are supposed to be trying to help set the priorities, and follow their lead, advising where you can. If it’s a humanitarian mission, it’s supposed to be about them. And if it isn’t a humanitarian mission, say so.

About the Author

Jonathan M. Katz is the author of "The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came To Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster," which won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and is a Barnes & Noble 'Discover Great New Writers' book for 2013. He was the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti from 2007 to 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

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