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NOW IN PAPERBACK

The Big Truck That Went By is now in paperback, on sale today toupatou (everywhere):

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Independents 

The new edition is updated throughout, with two special features not found in the hardcover edition:

  • A brand-new afterword about disaster and response since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
  • A discussion guide about the book’s major themes and topics, designed for classrooms and book clubs.

As well as four pages of maps and eight pages of photos. (The Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and hardcover editions are all still available too at the links above. The audio edition, which includes the new afterword, is here.)

***

And to launch the new edition, I’ll be reading and singing copies tomorrow  at Miami’s landmark Books & Books. Here’s info and directions:

Launch party!
Wednesday, April 2
Start time: 8 pm
Books & Books
265 Aragon Ave
Coral Gables, FL

Na we la!


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Why Cholera Persists In Haiti Despite An Abundance Of Aid

NPR’s Linda Wertheimer interviewed me last week on Haiti’s sanitation and the cholera crisis, following my recent piece at The New Yorker. You can listen at the link above.

A makeshift latrine hangs over the water at the edge of Cite de Dieu, a slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. John W. Poole / NPR

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UN Cholera Envoy: '€˜It was never the intention ... to bring cholera in Haiti'€

Three years after scientists say United Nations soldiers brought a killer strain of cholera to the Western Hemisphere, I sat down with the UN’€™s new point man on the crisis.

In a surprisingly candid interview, he answered questions about legal battles, recalcitrant donors, and fighting an epidemic that has killed 9,000 people and counting.

Notes

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AUDIO: The Big Truck That Went By, read by Jonathan Davis

Thrilled to announce that an audio version of The Big Truck That Went By is now on sale, read by the terrific Jonathan Davis.

Davis is one of Audible’s featured narrators, with over a hundred credits including Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, Brett Easton Ellis’ Glamaora, and thirty Star Wars titles for Lucasfilm.

He does an incredible job, bringing a whole new feeling and interpretation to the work. Even if you read and enjoyed it in print, I highly recommend hearing his version as well. (There’s a sample on the Amazon page too.)

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The Celebrity as Hero: When Sean Penn Fought a Phantom Epidemic

I adapted a piece from the book into a larger discussion of celebrity and power in humanitarian aid, posted at Gawker.

It’s specifically about Sean Penn and a tragic, confusing incident in 2010, so much of the discussion has focused on him personally. But as I try to indicate in the piece, the subject is much bigger than any one guy. With the ever-deeper infusion of Hollywood into global politics (look up "Children, Invisible" for starters), it gets more relevant by the day. Have a look:

(read the whole thing at Gawker)

Not in Haiti

Not a tent camp

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A Seven-Month Wait for Lunch: Why food aid needs to overhaul its delivery system.

The US throws away $165 billion worth of food a year without eating it. So why can’t we just feed the world by shipping free food? I tried to answer that in my first article in a great new science magazine, Nautilus:

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'Expert' cholera panel turns against UN (storified)

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Yet another study shows UN troops from Nepal brought cholera to Haiti in 201zzzzzzzz

Look, no one enjoys a good cholera epidemiology report more than me (ask my fiancée), but even I think this is getting old.

Don’t get me wrong, the new study published this past week in mBio is full of useful information. The 25-scientist team [led by the CDC's Lee S. Katz, no relation] offers critical insights into the structure of the cholera genome in Haiti. One is the most conclusive proof yet that the massively fatal disease was introduced in one fell swoop by a single source from Nepal. (It also contradicts the already shaky conclusion of a 2012 University of Maryland study that argued the epidemic might have been caused or significantly fueled by a local strain of Vibrio cholerae bacteria that doesn’t even produce the toxin that causes the disease of cholera.) 

But for a non-scientist such as myself, inclined by training and experience toward the political and social bottom line, this doesn’t break a lot of ground. Or, as we say in my business: It ain’t news. We’ve had reason to suspect since the first days of the epidemic that UN soldiers from Nepal were its most likely source. And following a intense struggle for answers, that connection has been nailed by study after report after study after paper before this.

The problem is that this unyielding flow of evidence has failed to persuade the one person whose opinion really counts. At the moment the mBio study was released, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was writing a letter to a group of U.S. congressmen, refusing their plea for his organization to accept financial and moral responsibility for causing an epidemic that has killed 8,160 people, sickened more than 600,000, and further scuttled Haiti’s economy and postquake reconstruction. (Ignore the conciliatory headline of the latter linked article; the UN chief’s note was a flat-out rejection of the lawmakers’ request, in toto.) 

Privately, I’ve talked to an endless array of UN officials past and present who openly admit that they know, and have long known, that UN troops caused the epidemic. But publicly, the world body’s official position remains complete and utter denial of the facts and total immunity from responsibility (if not gastrointestinal disease). 

Perhaps the strategy is to keep holding out as stalwarts of the case get bored, and newcomers arrive, increasingly confused. (Note to the LA Times, Vice, et al: UN troops, whose mission had begun six years before the earthquake, were not sent to Haiti to provide disaster relief; the soldiers in question weren’t even posted in the quake zone. More here and here.)

If that is the case, then the studies and studies to assuredly come, showing in ever finer detail the link between Nepal, her soldiers in the UN’s charge, and the Haiti epidemic will remain news of a kind. And this click-clack-clack of articles, tweets, and posts will go on and on and …

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Kung Fu Pand-Aid

It’s an age-old conundrum: People are hungry. We spend millions on food aid. They’re still hungry. What went wrong?

We wonder. Is there some sort of secret ingredient missing, something that when added to the mix would make it possible to feed the world? Some kind of especially nutritious grain? Controls to make sure the food doesn’t get stolen along the way? More aid workers to oversee it all? What is the secret ingredient?!

Let’s ask a chef. This chef. Mr. Ping?


The secret ingredient is… nothing

There is no secret ingredient. What’s missing isn’t a hypervitamin salt or corruption-fighting spreadsheet. It’s that the majority of what we spend on “food aid” doesn’t ever leave our borders at all, but rather subsidizes American farming corporations, shipping corporations, and NGOs. Jonathan Zasloff has an excellent new blog post breaking this down slice by slice, so I’ll put it simply here: Congressional regulations, hammered out over decades of lobbying, have created a regime that requires the lion’s share of “aid” money to be spent on U.S. businesses, and not on food or aid at all.

This is widely known by people in the aid industry and government. In fact it’s the starting point for discussion. That’s why the only surprise about this week’s report that the Obama administration is trying to reform the system to “buy food in developing countries instead of shipping food from American farmers overseas” – and that the farming and aid industries and their allies in Congress are fighting them tooth and nail – was the bluntness with which everyone spoke on the record. The winning quote came from David Evans, president of Phoenix-based Food for the Hungry, who said: “If the money is not supporting the purchasing of U.S. commodities, then it will lose support in Congress. And as a result, $1.5 billion in critical resources will be gone.”

The aid industry, U.S. growers, and Congress will only support foreign aid if it supports the purchasing of U.S. stuff. Let’s just say that again: The aid industry, U.S. growers, and Congress will only support foreign aid if it supports the purchasing of U.S. stuff. That is how foreign aid works, almost always. And it is one of the key reasons why foreign aid does not work.

The New York Times lays out the stakes terrifically. The Obama administration, presumably informed in large part by this study, estimates that 17 million more people (say, the populations of Haiti, Sierra Leone, and Swaziland combined) could be fed if the somewhat modest reforms are made. Far more importantly, it would strengthen food economies and production overseas so that someday food aid would not even be needed anymore.

But doing that – in other words, fulfilling the supposed entire point of giving food aid – would, according to the lobbying opponents, would threaten U.S. interests including, quote, “hundreds of [U.S.] jobs.” So never mind.

Again, this is how this works. This is what happened last year when USAID changed its rules to increase to a mere 30 percent the funds it spends through national institutions overseas – strengthening them, allowing them to some incrementally larger degree to set their own priorities and clean up their own messes – and the major aid groups and their lobbyists went to war. And it says a lot about how we ended up with the situation in postquake Haiti where just one percent of humanitarian relief money went to the Haitian government, with vast sums spent from one U.S. government agency to another, and to  with no public oversight or accountability for major U.S. contractors who profited handsomely. (Fun fact: Chemonics was founded by ERLY Industries, late owner of “one of the largest rice companies in the world.”)

In Kung Fu Panda, upon hearing Mr. Ping’s advice, Po – the titular hero – realizes what’s been missing in his quest. He hasn’t really tried to defeat his foe, because he didn’t think he could. He turns around, heads back to the palace, and beats up a cartoon tiger. In watching aidwork — and, even more importantly, the destructive impact of food trade policies — from the ground, it often seemed to me that what has been missing in food aid, and foreign assistance in general, hasn’t been a lack of answers, technology, or even understanding of the problem. We all know pretty much what has to change. What’s been lacking is the will.

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