Review: Haiti’s unreconstructed disaster story

January 11, 2013

It is three years since a massive earthquake devastated Haiti. A new book by Jonathan Katz suggests that the ensuing international aid effort gave the stricken the Caribbean country all possible assistance, short of actual help. He suggests, indeed, that the outsiders did more harm than good.

Haiti’s crisis plucked at the world’s heart strings. Bill Clinton, Sean Penn and Angelina Jolie were among the famous names who stepped up as advocates for the dispossessed. Katz reports that $16.3 billion, much from the United States, was donated. But the effort fell woefully short. “The world came to save Haiti and left behind a disaster”, he writes.

The $16.3 billion promise might sound large, but it pales beside the $806 billion that Katz says went Iraq’s way in military and reconstruction spending up to 2011. It pales, also, against the $20 billion spent over 10 years maintaining roads and railways in Maryland – a small U.S. state of similar size to Haiti. It is equivalent of $1,600 per Haitian. That’s not nothing. But in the context of the scale of the work required, it is hardly a fortune.

Besides, Katz reckons that the sum was exaggerated. Some pledges remained just that. Some dollops of aid were reallocations of already promised funds. Debt forgiveness – which Katz asserts is aid recognisable only to accountants – was lumped in.

Money was spent outside Haiti giving work to non-Haitian aid professionals. Katz acknowledges the need for such indirect support in the messiness of a disaster relief programme. But fears about corruption impeded the flow of funds to Haiti, while Katz asserts that donors’ and aiders’ own practices fell short. Non-governmental, governmental, and supra-governmental organisations, says Katz, showed themselves to be inefficient, ineffective, self serving, and short sighted. Katz describes how 7,500 Haitians died in an epidemic of cholera that he says was introduced by Nepalese soldiers acting under the auspices of the United Nations.

Bad luck exacerbated Haiti’s historic problems with poor institutions and corrupt leaders. Outsiders also exaggerated the threat that disaster and disease would breed cataclysmic civic disorder. By the same token Katz avoids making the mistake of casting ordinary Haitians as caricature innocents. It is refreshing to see them crowding round fuzzy TV screens enjoying the 2010 Soccer World Cup, for instance. And dancing to “Kompa, that thumping love child of merengue, funk, and R&B…”

His sketch of Marassa, one of the accommodation camps that sprang up in Haiti, is even more revealing. “Under a busy overpass, children were flying kites,” he writes, before describing the informal governance structure of the shanty. “New ’camp committees,’ heavily male, were rarely elected,” says Katz. “The young men had come forward on their own, and no one knew how they would use their power.” Yes, there’s a shadow of gangster-dom here. But the existence of the committees points to the powerful role that spontaneous initiatives can play in reconstruction or renewal. The financial cost of such enterprise, meanwhile, can be minimal.

Katz survived the quake personally and lived its aftermath as a news reporter. His book has flaws that may stem from a lack of detachment. But by telling the story from the bottom up, Katz shows that money, though useful, is a poor substitute for know-how, empathy, and trust.

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