What have we wrought in Haiti?

Nations prone to natural and man-made disasters receive far too little media coverage or scrutiny. Haiti is such a place. I visited there last year and it features heavily in my upcoming book, Profits of Doom. This great review by Pooja Bhatia, in the London Review of Books, covers similar issues, namely the lack of accountability for NGOs:

In January 2010, Jonathan Katz was working in Haiti for the Associated Press, the only American news organisation with a permanent bureau there. Other foreign journalists lived there, and a few more flew in for elections and catastrophes, but for the most part Haiti coverage had become a casualty of slashed budgets at dying newspapers and magazines. Covering a small, destitute island no longer made economic sense. It was a tough gig for a freelancer, owing to the high cost of living and the necessity of speaking Creole, or hiring a translator. I managed on a fellowship, and over the years Katz and I became friends.

So when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake destroyed the capital, turned a million out their homes and killed countless others – estimates range from the high five figures to 316,000 – Haiti, though it’s only seven hundred miles off the coast of Florida, was a journalistic backwater. Many of the reporters who parachuted in for the aftermath were disaster pros, or lords of the warzone, but also Hispaniola neophytes. The stories that appeared on television and in newspapers were dystopian and hysterical: black people crawling out of piles of crumbled concrete carrying juice and toilet paper became ”˜looters’; and sexual violence in the tent camps became an ”˜epidemic of rape’. Once the corpses had gone, questions of aid and reconstruction weren’t enough to keep most parachutists around: their bosses weren’t interested.

Without much prior knowledge of Haiti, foreign reporters tended to rely on foreign sources, many of whom had just arrived in the country themselves: US generals, UN spokesmen, Sean Penn. President René Préval had more or less retreated, in shock and sorrow and, I imagine, disgust. With just a week in the country – two if they were lucky – reporters tended to take international agencies and organisations at their word, instead of realising that part of the press’s job was to keep them accountable.

Katz was an exception.… The Big Truck That Went By… chronicles the year that followed the quake, when nothing got better and a great many things got worse. (The joke among the reporters who stuck around that year went something like: ”˜Earthquake, floods, cholera, riots – what’s next, locusts?’) Everyone’s nerves frayed. Katz recounts being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but his subject is the incompetence, wastefulness and hypocrisy of rich-country policies towards Haiti. The sins of foreign powers are legion in Haiti, and… The Big Truck That Went By… is supremely valuable for collecting the chatter, statistics and anecdotes into a damning dossier: ”˜Having sought above all to prevent riots, ensure stability and prevent disease, the responders helped spark the first, undermine the second and by all evidence caused the third.’

It began with hubris and extravagant promises. Within days of the disaster, powerful people around the world were speaking of ”˜Marshall Plans’, ”˜building back better’ and a ”˜new Haiti’. At a donor conference in March 2010, two and a half months after the quake, rich countries announced pledges of $8.4 billion for Haiti’s reconstruction, a sum bigger than its annual GDP, and spoke of changing the way aid was done. Haiti was already known as the ”˜Republic of NGOs’, and its reliance on them was strangling the country. As foreign aid groups delivered basic services – including water, medical care and electricity – the state’s capacity to do so weakened. Ordinary Haitians had little or no say in what went on. The donor conference proposed a solution: a commission of Haitians and outsiders would determine spending priorities. It would be co-chaired by a real grandee: Bill Clinton, who the year before had been appointed UN special envoy to Haiti. ”˜He had a particular fondness for places he mucked up as president,’ Katz writes.

Amid the flashbulbs and self-congratulation at the conference, Katz noticed other portents. The Haitian government’s plan for reconstruction read as if it had been ghostwritten by the donors. It emphasised private enterprise, paid scant attention to housing for the 1.5 million people displaced by the quake, and was in general so vague that ”˜it seemed donors would be forgiven for doing whatever they wanted.’ Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, warned donors to hold themselves accountable (what institution holds itself accountable?) and to work with the Haitian government rather than around it. The day before she spoke, her own deputy had predicted correctly that Congress was unlikely to route aid through the Haitian government. Results from a survey that canvassed 1750 Haitians on the reconstruction – ”˜the only views of regular Haitians heard that day’ – were nearly excluded from the proceedings. Haitians’ ”˜desire to be consulted in setting priorities, selecting projects and assessing tangible and measurable outcomes’ was mostly ignored. Préval was at one point lectured on accountability by a 32-year-old Norwegian emissary and then forgotten, it seemed, when discussion at the press conference that followed veered to Iran. ”˜Do I need to develop a nuclear programme so that we come back to talking about Haiti?’ he asked.

Of the $2.43 billion in aid disbursed in 2010, 6 per cent couldn’t be accounted for. One per cent, $24 million, went to the Haitian government. The rest went to agencies and organisations based in donor countries and to the United Nations. Nearly half a billion went to the US Department of Defense, which spent a million dollars a day maintaining a nuclear supercarrier in the bay of Port-au-Prince; $3.6 million of it was spent on repairs to navy helicopters and the rest on many assorted, bizarre sundries: $194,000 for audiovisual equipment from a store in Manhattan, $18,000 on a jungle gym that cost less than $6000 online and thousands on kitchen implements. ”˜What earthquake fallout prompted the Coast Guard to buy a $4462 deep-fat fryer – years of Haitian income – in early 2011?’ Katz wonders. A spokesman did not provide answers.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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