When the Haitian earthquake struck on January 12, 2010, Jonathan Katz, a 29-year-old reporting for the Associated Press, was the only full-time American correspondent left in the country. His home was destroyed. "It was a shove, it was another shove, the walls started collapsing and separating in front of me, people were carrying their injured relatives in front of me, people were dazed, people were screaming…." he describes in a video shot a year later.
His new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How The World Came to Save Haiti And Left Behind A Disaster, is a scathing tale of good intentions and where they too often lead—of the blend of paternalism, celebrity madness, ADD, and absurdity that all too often characterize modern philanthropy.
"I wanted to write this book to understand how a massive humanitarian effort, led by the most powerful nation in the world—my country—could cause so much harm and heartache in another that wanted its help so badly," Katz wrote.
The deck was stacked against self-determination from the outset: A high—Katz says exaggerated—level of concern about corruption led to money being directed away from the Haitian government and towards NGOs like the Red Cross that weren’t prepared or focused on long-term reconstruction. Celebrities like Bill Clinton, Sean Penn, and Wyclef Jean flew in and on to the next disaster without doing much for local institutions. The United Nations’ own soldiers added a cholera epidemic to Haiti’s ills. Of $2.43 billion given to earthquake relief by the end of 2010, according to Katz’s estimate, just 7% actually made its way to Haiti.
As natural disasters become more common, Katz writes, we need to update our collective wisdom about what to do next, getting rid of "The hoary, illogical clichés that gird disaster response. For instance, that people will panic, riot, or turn on each other after a disaster; typically, they don’t. Or that in fashioning solutions to disasters, doing something is always better than doing nothing, no matter how poorly thought-out it is; it’s not. And, for anyone who gave money to a major aid group, that they were going to be able to spend your $20 donation."
The "good" news is that as the rich world experiences more of its own natural disasters, it may root out these cliches. For example, millions of people in the New York City area affected by Hurricane Sandy discovered that neighbors were more inclined to help than to turn on each other; that neighborhood-level aid groups, even ad hoc, were often better equipped to respond than the Red Cross or FEMA; and that most people, even disaster victims, prefer to keep making as many of their own decisions as possible.
[Images: United Nations Development Programme]