(Book review) The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster

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The Big Truck That Went ByI just finished reading “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster” by Jonathan Katz and wanted to share my impressions of the book.

When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, Jonathan Katz was an AP reporter who had already been in the country for two years. In fact, he was the only permanent staff member of a major international news outlet in Haiti. Katz himself was in his house when it collapsed and, together with his local staff, started reporting from the day zero.

I have a lot of respect for Katz and was really looking forward to reading his book. After all, he knew Haiti better than any other journalist who flew in after the quake, he already had a network in place that he could use to get information and he speaks Creole. Having read the book, I am of two minds. There are parts I agreed with and parts I strongly disagree with.

While reading the book, I noticed that I tend to disagree more strongly with his description of events that took place during the time I was in Haiti, than with his description of things that happened after I had left and I realize that it is possible that there are some issues where I simply feel protective of the work of my colleagues.

The way I read his book was that Jonathan Katz is someone who was very close to the affected population. He heard the lofty promises, just like them, and was disappointed, just like them, that so little improved compared to the scale of the disaster, despite all the work that people put in and all the money that was spent. While I don’t think that his criticism is always fair, I think it is entirely legitimate that he feels that way and I bet there are tens of thousands of people in Haiti who feel the same way. In a way, outside academic circles, it’s pretty pointless to argue about an “objective truth” if a large number of people whom you were supposed to help don’t think that you delivered the aid they needed. Besides, if we truly believe in the mantra of professionalizing aid, then we also have to accept criticism.

I addition, I believe that Katz did his best to be fair and accurate and there is a lesson to be learned in that as well.

Here are my thoughts:

  • NGOs and institutional donors need to become more transparent – and I’m not just talking about paying lip service to the idea. I’m talking about real, concrete steps to improve transparency, for example by implementing the recommendations of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). If even a highly motivated, professional journalists with privileged access to decision makers finds it “hard to track where aid went and how it got spent”, then NGOs and institutional donors are not doing a very good job at communicating how and where they spend the money! If someone like Katz can’t figure it out, then individual donors and beneficiaries don’t stand a chance. Incidentally Claudia Schwegmann just published a great post on why NGOs should implement IATI and I highly recommend that you read it.
  • On the other hand, I find Katz’s book inconsistent in some parts. For example, in the beginning, he criticizes at great length that aid organizations imported water, but then he says that “by February, the Port-au-Prince municipal water authority was producing 50 percent more water per day then it had before the quake”. I would call that a success, particularly considering that this was barely four weeks after the earthquake. He also complains that the Haitian government had hardly any control over the money that was spent in Haiti. I think this is a very important subject to discuss, yet he later states that the Haitian government wasn’t strong enough to exert influence over the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) that the prime-minister was co-chairing and which was supposed to fund projects in the country. I don’t understand why he seems to think that the Haitian government would have been able to manage a bigger pot of money, when they weren’t able to lead the IHRC. For me that doesn’t go together.
  • Speaking of the IHRC: I agree that it didn’t do a good job. But that doesn’t mean that having a body that is jointly chaired by the government and an international representative was a bad idea. As Katz points out, this system worked in Aceh so I think it made sense to try it again in Haiti. I also don’t think that it was an instrument of foreign donors to dictate Haitian policy, or at least it didn’t have to be that way. I think the Haitian government was overwhelmed by the task (and who wouldn’t have been) and didn’t take the reins in the way it should have. But that does not mean that establishing IHRC was a bad idea or that giving more money directly to the Haitian government would have changed anything.
  • I was also disappointed to see that pretty much the only aidworkers about whom Katz had anything good to say, were the doctors and nurses that arrived after the earthquake. I think that is not doing justice to the many people who worked there, the WASH engineers, the hygiene promoters and yes, even the much maligned shelter people who distributed an extraordinary amount of tarps at the beginning of the response. Of course, he might simply think that the work these people did was not good enough but I believe that many of them did the best that anyone could have done under the circumstances.
  • There were also some things, I was very glad to read: I think Katz did an excellent job at critiquing how money flows after a disaster and explaining the important difference between the money pledged to an operation, as opposed to the amounts that are actually being made available as well as how debt-relief skews these figures even more. I also agree that it is unfair to hold the Haitian Government accountable for the management of funds it never had control over.
  • Last but not least I was very glad to read his emphasis on the importance of disaster preparedness and strengthening local capacity – which does not mean holding another workshop on capacity building, but (among other things) creating local jobs that create income and tax revenue. I definitely agree that creating jobs in low-paying sectors while giving the owners tax-exempt status and allowing them to transfer all profits out of the country is not the way to achieve this. The example of Haiti’s garment industry shows that resiliency and stability are linked to global trade policies and that advocating against a race to the bottom for the lowest price of a t-shirt can be more important than donating money after a disaster has struck.

All in all, I agree with Katz on most of his big-picture comments, but I disagree with a lot of the details. In any case, it is certainly a book worth reading, even if you only want to better understand how aid is being perceived.

Have you read the book? What do you think?

  • Frantz LouisJean

    I'am Frantz, R/AC mechanical operating Eng. In Haiti I agreed with you.

  • Helena Maria

    Hi Timo, I did not read the book but I can follow what you say and as a field worker I can relate to what you say. Thank you for the book review it gave me the curiosity to read it.
    Helena Maria

    • Hi Helena! Let me know what you think once you've read it!

  • kdmOregon

    Thanks for the balanced review having worked in Haiti before and after the earthquake and involved in managing an emergency cholera program in the Central Plateau and evaluating programs in IDP camps in PAP I look fwd to reading this book and comparing to what I experienced and observed. It would be nice to see more written abt the + AND – of the responses…to much it seems has been one sided and over simplified.

    • Thanks for your comment. I'd be curious to hear what you think.

  • Deepak Sachdeva

    Hey! Thank you for raising all of our concerns to Haiti. I completely agree by all your views. Thank you for this brief review. looking forward to read it.