Haiti – Thoughts about The Big Truck That Went By by Jonathan Katz

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Sometimes it seems the problems of the world are too ingrained, too built into the structure of how things have been, so one of the things that stands out for me in the book The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster is the idea that there are times when good changes could be made, and there are bad changes being made just a few years ago, when people really ought to have known better and decided otherwise. Yes, Haiti has a whole pile of back-story making some things harder but none of that is an excuse for the way in which the rest of the world focuses its “aid” on what is best for them, not Haiti.

The Big Truck That Went By is written by Jonathan M. Katz, a reporter for AP, who was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. The book includes horrifying descriptions of the day of the quake and the immediate time after, but it also includes lots about the history of Haiti, and the process by which decisions for foreign assistance is made. Once the immediate rescue attempt is over, how do they attempt the rebuilding? Little of the funding was making it to the Haitian government. “Ninety-nine-point-one percent of humanitarian funding after the quake had gone to NGOs and the Red Cross movement, contractors, or UN agencies, or had stayed with the foreign governments themselves.” (130)  Some organizations were given more in directed donations towards Haiti than they actually spent on Haiti (206) and some of the spending on Haiti includes such things as buying $11,352.50 worth of medals and ribbons from a store in Virginia for the Coast Guard to celebrate the mission (205). Understandibly a lot of Haitians felt ripped off, like they had been promised all sorts of assistance and wondered why it didn’t arrive, and Mr. Katz emphasises that they were told to blame the Haitian government, despite the Haitian government not being given the money.

Apparently people were too afraid of corruption to give money to the Haitian government. Katz points out that some of the corruption is due to poverty. Paying traffic cops and customs bureau officials more than an abject poverty level wage would help reduce corruption – but that would require the government to have more money, not less. In another example, a Haiti’s state-run telephone company took bribes from U.S. telecom companies. That Americans end up convicted, and that the American companies implicated included one run by congressman James Courter, the national finance co-chair for John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, doesn’t lead people to say that the US is corrupt, but the situation did provide fuel for those who didn’t want the Haitian government to control the foreign aid given.

Preventing the Haitian government from having real say in how foreign aid is spent weakens the government. They have to go along with foreign decisions, changing their country the way the foreigners want rather than rebuilding the country in a way that prioritizes the needs of the Haitians. And when Haitians hear that foreign aid is being given but see little benefit for themselves they blame their own government, not understanding their government’s lack of power.

Apparently foreign advisors had already started in 2009 to press for the expansion of the garment industry in Haiti, and for the garment industry to be effective they needed to keep the minimum wage low. Clothing sweatshops have always been a bit problematic.The jobs aren’t enough to lift people out of poverty.On one hand, the workers are happy for the jobs, are they not? There are those who argue that keeping the wages incredibly low attracts more factories allowing more people to develop skills which they are somehow supposed to use to get better wages. On the other hand, are more jobs really being created or are they simply taking jobs from whatever other impoverished country the garment companies were at previously? Katz references to the idea that the garment factories will leave when the increased skills justify higher wages. (Note: I see similiarites with how in scientific research in Canada there are more positions for low-paid students but fewer positions available for the highly skilled graduates.) Katz also challenges the idea that employment is necessarily what the Haitian people lack. He talks about the informal sector where people’s employment is not recognized by official standards. “It wasn’t jobs that Haiti lacked; it was stable, sustainable incomes – something the garment plan would do little to provide.” (142)

Perhaps the solution to the problem of sweatshops is to work on limiting their mobility, either through laws or social pressure, so that the industries are forced to negotiate with their workers. The organization One Struggle has been calling upon people to contact clothing companies that buy clothes from Haiti and demand that they crack down at wage theft in the factories that produce their clothing and that they support a higher minimum wage.

In Haiti though, the building of the new garment industry, there is an additional complication. Jonathan Katz goes through and explains some of the backroom business that involved relocating a tent city to a new area outside of the main city so as to provide workers for the upcoming factory. All of this done, of course, in the name of rebuilding and without acknowledging the manipulation. No one was told that was the goal of why they were being moved.

The book explains how the Red Cross and Red Cresant societies specialize in short-term emergency relief. In the aftermass of the earthquake they raised more money than they could spend in Haiti. If people want to believe the money they donate goes towards the long-term project of rebuilding a country, the Red Cross is not the place to donate to. Katz writes:

Dig deeper to find organizations with long expeirence in the affected region. Find people who speak local languages and have strong local ties that will help ensure they understand what is needed, what is available, and to whom the help should go. Best of all would be to send help to NGOs and organizations from the affected countries themselves, so that they can lead the way. All that is important. But it’s now, in the ample time between emergencies, when the heavy lifting has to be done. (278)

Now is probably also the time when we have to work with our own politicians and communities. We need to emphasis to our politicians that they must not prioritize our business needs over the rights of individuals in those countries. It would be better for Haiti to work on developing its own sustainable agriculture than to work on promoting mangos for export or low wage jobs, but that is not in American (or Canadian, or probably most other countries) interests. We need to change that, to hold our politicians accountable for the damage they promote overseas when they promote bad policies. We need to change our politicians priorities and the way they work, so we can better help others.

The Big Truck That Went By mixes bits of individual stories in with the politics. It talks about how different individuals made their life after the earthquake, and it tells of how he met a student taking oral histories in Haiti, and they fell in love. There is a story in the New York Times about their marriage last October.

From here you might want to head over to an interesting interview with the author  at indyweekly or you might also want to check out my review of Paved With Good Intentions: Canada’s Development NGOs from Idealism to Imperialism.

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