Three years after the earthquake, Durham's Jonathan M. Katz talks Haiti relief, the media and Sean Penn



Jonathan M. Katz
  • Zach Hetrick
  • Jonathan M. Katz

Journalist Jonathan M. Katz, who currently resides in Durham, was the only full-time U.S. reporter in Haiti at the time of the 2010 earthquake. His experiences, not just during the immediate aftermath of the quake but over the next few years of relief efforts, are recounted in his new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (Palgrave Macmillan, $26.00), which he'll read tonight at Durham's Regulator Bookshop at 7 p.m. The book has received widespread acclaim for its insight into post-earthquake Haiti, and during its writing it received the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia and Harvard Universities.

We got on the phone with Katz at his Durham residence for an in-depth discussion of the problems with Haiti relief efforts, the lack of understanding and need for accountability regarding the international community's involvement with Haiti and much more.

INDY WEEK: Obviously you have strong opinions on the issue, but I’m curious if your thoughts or perspective on Haiti have changed from when you first wrote the book.
JONATHAN M. KATZ: Most of what I’m describing in the book is what happened, so if something significant happened in the future, I’d want to write a Part Two. But, nonetheless, it’s important to remember that the clock hasn’t stopped, and people are still living in Haiti, and the problems they are facing are still going on.

But I wanted to focus on the aftermath of the disaster, and then the coverage of this a year after, and then two years after, because those are the problems that carry into the future. These problems didn’t end, and they aren’t going to end unless things are done.

How long has it been since you’ve been to Haiti?
About seven, eight months ago.

How were things there on your most recent visit?
Really honestly, more of the same. The conditions in Haiti now—there’s Haiti and the quake zone, which are two separate issues—but in the capital, the population center most affected by the earthquake, things haven’t improved. People were living in tarps and lean-to structures, and people are leaving the area, but it’s not clear where they’re going. It’s pretty obvious to me where they’re not moving to, because there have not been better homes constructed, bigger areas zoned out, no necessary steps taken to ensure building codes are implemented and structures held to a certain standard.

People leaving these refugee camps are at best moving to pay odious rent in houses that are as unstable as when the earthquake struck, and at worst paying to move somewhere else that’s sort of shoved out of sight of the media.

The book in general talks about much larger systemic and structural problems, both in Haiti and in how aid development has gone. There’s a look at Haiti, and how humanitarian aid from the U.S.—or the West, as it’s known—has gone astray.

Many critics argue that Haiti has been, if not forgotten, at least overshadowed by other global/local problems.

What do you feel is the most overwhelming reason why there has not been more of a focus on Haiti over the past three years?
First of all, we sometimes in the United States put a little too much of a premium on the attention that we pay to other parts of the world. There’s a lot of ways of phrasing this, but the idea is that if we focus our attentions on a problem for a short time, then that problem will go away. And that’s not necessarily the case.


So when you’re looking at our attentions on Haiti, the question is whether everyone, or everyone in the American upper-middle class or whatever you’d like, should immediately start paying attention again and that will solve the problem. But not all that attention is good attention. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, people saw the images, heard the story, heard appeals for money from non-governmental organizations and responded to those by sending their money, but that’s not the same as paying attention to what those real problems were, and trying to solve those problems.

To take that a step further: even if we all, as individuals, try identifying these core problems and paying attention to them, that’s not necessarily the right thing either. What we need is people who act, people who are doing this work, who are involved in foreign policy. And ultimately that comes down to Congress, as well—for them to be aware of the problems and be fully engaged with dealing with the damage to Haiti under the principle of “first do no harm,” and then trying to turn that around, to actually make things better.

What people really need to be doing if they want to be involved is to pay attention to what’s really happening, to understand foreign policy matters and to encourage congressmen to make better laws in the United States that affect Haiti, and to be putting [attention on] NGOs that are taking our money and doing work in our name, and trying to affect change that way. But it’s not a matter of there being this attention ray, and if you turn the attention ray back on, those things get better.

The big thing is, a lot of those structural problems in Haiti affect all kinds of problems all over the world. So even if structures are fixed in Haiti, and there’s improvement in aid and international relations, that’s still putting the focus squarely on Haiti, which is still just one country out of so many in the world. So fixing structures like those found in Haiti all over the world is going to be a better solution in the long run.

But it is kind of chilling how much focus the U.S. had on Haiti right after the earthquake vs. now. You look at how there was a big focus on the damages from Hurricane Sandy, and just two months later there were the Newtown shootings. And I find myself wondering how much focus there’s going to be on those a year later, or the next horrible disaster. It’s that pattern: there’s a crisis, a ton of news coverage, we throw some money at it and assume everything’s going to be hunky-dory.
We have a short attention span, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. At the great salad bar of news, where you can grab what interests you from here and what interests you from there, you do have the advantage that if something grabs your interest, you can stay interested in it and become involved with the issue and work at changing things yourself.

The issue is [that] superficial changes, Band-Aids, don’t work. I could run through the list of things you just mentioned—Sandy Hook involves figuring out a systematic approach to our gun problem and how we’re going to solve it, whether it’s more gun control or Wayne LaPierre’s solution of putting armed guards everywhere. But the issue there is how we’re going to solve the problem.

With Hurricane Sandy, you’ve got two issues, one of which is the long-term problem of global warming and the impact of other storms acting strangely and occurring more often and going further outside of the typical zones [than] they would have before.

The other is the systemic vulnerability of America. There needs to be an effort to prepare New York for other major hurricanes and storms that are likely to come in over the next 10 to 20 years. There’s all kinds of proposals, from raising the subway entrance a couple of steps to building a multi-billion dollar seawall.

Going back to Haiti: Haiti has these systemic problems. They’re not mysteries! There’s a lack of durable institutions in Haiti, there’s a lack of responsible government. There’s a lack of resources on the ground that are able to handle the crisis. And there’s a lack of accountability on the part of the international community for the actions that we take there.

To use one example from the book: The international community, by all evidence, caused the cholera epidemic in Haiti, which affected about 8,000 people and sickened about 6 percent of the country. And any time there’s a major rainstorm, when there’s flooding anywhere in the country, that helps spread the disease [through contaminated drinking water].

So you have two major systemic problems. First is the need for proper sanitation and clean drinking water, which has to be guaranteed and passed out by a local government in Haiti that is capable of maintaining it in a way that allows for adaptations to changes in the area, how population centers are shifting, what kind of filters you have to put in, whatever is necessary.

No matter how distracted we get by the news coming out of Connecticut or Maui or China or wherever, there’s someone in Durham whose job it is to make sure the water pipes keep pumping out water, and that the water that pumps out of those pipes is filtered correctly. Haiti needs that.

The second thing is that there needs to be accountability on the part of the international community for what they’ve actually done, and the fact that the United Nations, a quarter of whose budget is provided by the United States, caused this cholera epidemic. This all may seem like it happened a long time ago, but it really didn’t—it’s happening now. And while every single tourist doesn’t have to be engaged with this, somebody has to.

One of the interesting things I noted was a recent interview you did where you offered a more positive view of the relief efforts by celebrities such as Sean Penn, which have at times been mocked in the media as grandstanding, and you pointed out that there were real efforts going on with them, Penn especially.
Yeah, I mean, Sean Penn—when we talk about celebrities in danger zones, there’s often a presumption that there’s a few pretty faces who go down there with a nebulous goal of boosting awareness and their own [public relations] efforts, and then they smile and they leave.

And Sean Penn wasn’t that! He’s a complex man with complex motivations, and for many reasons he came down to Haiti and started doing this work, but, in doing so, he became the real deal. He became the real aid worker, and the real head of the real NGO that the people of Haiti were depending upon, just like they depend upon any other NGO.

But the thing is, the conversation shouldn’t end there. Just because we determined that he was not a dilettante doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to say about Sean Penn. Sean Penn actually became wildly important after I finished writing the book; I talk about this a little in the epilogue, but he becomes even more important after that.
He became an ambassador at large for Haiti; he has diplomatic status throughout the Republic of Haiti to be an ambassador there.

His NGO is not only continuing its work and not only has people in particular neighborhoods where it works relying on it, but has a contract to demolish and clear the rubble of the National Place, which would be the equivalent of Penn or Angelina Jolie or George Clooney or [whomever] being in charge of the demolition and removal of the U.S. Capitol building. And that’s had a very strong reaction in Haiti, with the editor-in-chief of a newspaper in Haiti writing a column I quoted in the book’s epilogue to the effect of, “Two hundred years after we declared independence, we still can’t handle the cleanup of our own house.”

Three years from now, what changes would you like to see have taken place in Haiti, and in the rest of the world’s reaction to the country?
In terms of the rest of the world’s reaction, the most important things are the change of mind and the change of perception. We just saw in January that in Canada, the Minister of International Cooperation announced Canada would be freezing efforts of development aid. And the rationale for that was that Canada had given Haiti all this money and they’d squandered it, and through Haiti’s ineptitude or corruption, Canada had not gotten the results that Canadians had a right to expect, and, as a result, they weren’t going to be working in Haiti.

The biggest thing that could happen in three years is that—and this is an optimistic view—that attitude could change, that people can understand that the way this works is not that foreign aid is just given from a rich country to a poor country and if it doesn’t get down on the ground, then the poor country isn’t holding out its end of the bargain.

More often than not, these programs are designed in a way that maximizes the public relations benefits for the governments of the poor countries, who try to hold onto as much of it as they can. The money goes in circles, and it doesn’t always wind up on the ground. What can change in terms of foreign aid is wider recognition that this is actually how this works. And then a conversation can take place where we decide how this should change.

You ask me what I want to see changed, and that would be that we take this generosity of spirit that we think we are showing, and we retain that, while adopting policies that actually allow that generosity to actually flow—so when we say that we’re going to give money to a foreign country, we actually give money to that country, and work with those on the ground, and say, “What are the institutions and structures that are needed here?” and we help to build them.

What I hope for Haiti three years from now—though three years is probably a short time frame, but you never know—is that those institutions and structures are starting to be built, that the local agencies [and] national agencies in Haiti are more able than they were to handle their own crises and help people with their daily lives.

And as a result of that kind of investment, where we’re actually investing in people’s lives and livelihoods, you start to see things like kids in good schools and a situation where food is actually grown in Haiti for Haitian consumption and a health care system is starting to emerge where people can get support for both the problems they face today and that they might be facing down the road, and an internationally-supported health care system that is able to handle the cholera crisis, with the United Nations taking responsibility for that crisis.

But all that said, these issues that we are talking about are generational. So what I would hope to see in three years would be a really good start toward these problems possibly being solved over a generational timeframe.

Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?
I wanted to mention how I wound up in Durham. Over the course of working on the book, I met a woman named Claire Payton, who was in Haiti working on an oral history project called “The Haiti Memory Project,” where she was collecting the story of earthquake survivors. We were living together in Brooklyn for a while, but she decided to move to Durham to work in the Haiti program at Duke University. Claire’s a Ph.D. candidate here while she works at the Haiti Lab at Duke. Funnily enough, being in Durham is very much a continuation of my book, with a great deal of discussion of Haiti. It’s kind of a holy grail of Haiti knowledge here.

Jonathan M. Katz appears at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham tonight at 7 p.m. to read from and sign copies of The Big Truck That Went By. For more information, visit or call 919-286-2700.

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