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.)
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:
Halfway through the trailer for Ben Stiller’s remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the title daydreamer—stuck in the rat race with boring men in boring suits at Life magazine— lifts his eyes from his desk toward a photograph on a bulletin board. Now here’s the payoff, when staid reality breaks into excitement, and the nebbishy lead is drawn into the world of fantasy and adventure that Fox is betting will win our $12 and two hours come Christmas. It’s a photo of Sean Penn.
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:
Last fall, the United States government bought lunch for some hungry schoolchildren in Mozambique. Though the students lived in their country’s best farming region, where deep green hills cover rich, red soil, their benefactors didn’t buy the food nearby—nor even from their wealthier neighbors in South Africa. Nor did they turn to the children’s farmer parents to grow (click here for more) …
The UN lost one of its last defenses against the claim that its soldiers introduced cholera to Haiti when the four experts Ban Ki-moon appointed to investigate the claim have stated flatly that the UN was likely responsible for causing the outbreak. Here are some articles and my thoughts.
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 …
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?!
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.
Two of the most-asked questions I’ve gotten lately concern UN peacekeepers in Haiti. Namely: Why are they there, and how long are they staying?
The first is hard to answer precisely. Despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, the troops did not arrive in response to the 2010 earthquake, or close to it. Rather they came six years earlier, in the aftermath of the 2004 coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide and subsequent U.S.-led invasion. Their original mission was to prop up a U.S.-backed interim government, organize presidential elections, and keep various factions from launching a civil war. Nine years and two presidential elections later, despite the fact that no war has ever come, they’re still there. The short explanation is “mission creep.” There’s probably a longer one available at Turtle Bay, if not Foggy Bottom.
But the second question, how much longer are they staying, got something of an answer this month. In his now-annual report to the Security Council on MINUSTAH, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described a “consolidation plan” that will make it possible for the currently 9,000-strong force to draw down and eventually leave, saying:
The tasks selected were those considered realistically achievable within a time frame of four to five years and deemed to be key to the consolidation of security and stability in Haiti, at which point the presence of a large peacekeeping operation would no longer be required.
In other words, MINUSTAH expects to be in Haiti until late 2016/early 2017 at least, if not until well into 2018. That goes far beyond the expected 2015 date of the next presidential elections.
Or to put it another way, if funding levels remain constant, MINUSTAH will stay in Haiti for another $2.6 billion to $3.2 billion. (The United States typically contributes about 27 percent of that cost.)
Even then, according to Ban, MINUSTAH will only consider leaving if Haiti has made substantial progress on 27 benchmarks, including constitutional and legislative reform, and the creation of a 15,000-member national police force (which will require the addition of 1,000 new, trained, vetted, and well-funded officers per year). There is reason to think that will take more than five years, to say the least.
The context for this is interesting. While the peacekeeping force draws down slowly, other aid groups and representatives of the international community are moving quickly for the exits. In his remarks, Ban noted that the number of international NGOs in Haiti has declined 57 percent since 2010. Former President Bill Clinton, who had been UN Special Envoy for Haiti since 2009, quietly stepped down at the end of January.
And while the international community considers raising MINUSTAH’s overall bill to roughly $8 billion (2004-2012 cost about $4.75 billion), money for other things is drying up. As Ban notes disturbingly in his report, the incidence of cholera was on the uptick again as of November 2012. He explains:
The deterioration of cholera facilities and funding shortfalls to secure the payment of medical and sanitary staff ensuring hygiene in health facilities, compounded by the closure of humanitarian projects, explain this increase in the incidence of the disease. Owing to funding shortfalls, the number of cholera treatment facilities fell to 159 in November 2012 from 248 in June 2011.
The irony, if it needs to be said again, is that all evidence shows that none other than the UN peacekeepers themselves caused the disease. And while the UN claims to be fighting the epidemic (in part by stamping its name on a year-old, unfunded Dominico-Haitian initiative), it has become abundantly clear to observers that the world body is falling short. The New York Times editorial board opined this week that the UN’s "handling of cholera is looking like a fiasco.” Calling on the UN to live up to its “moral obligation” for having caused the epidemic, the Times said that Ban’s claims of major investment in fighting the outbreak are “dubious.” (It should be noted that the estimated price tag of the cholera eradication effort, $2.27 billion, would be substantially less than the projected cost of continuing the mission at full strength.)
Ban did not comment on the causes of the cholera outbreak in his report to the Security Council. Nor did he comment on the effects that widespread resentment of the peacekeepers have on the stability and tranquility that MINUSTAH have been entrusted with maintaining. That’s been the UN mission’s pattern so far, and there are no signs the mission’s attitude will change— though it seems they’ve got at least four or five more years to do so.
While I intend to keep posting on this site from time to time, I’ve increasingly been putting Big Truck-related news and posts on the new Facebook page. As we near publication on January 8 and the first readings and such get announced, expect to see them over there (and Twitter) more often than here.
If you haven’t been checking them out already, here’s a few highlights from the past few weeks:
"But it’s now, in the ample time between emergencies, when the heaviest lifting has to be done. The issue is less with some organizations having more know-how than others; it’s that the whole system needs to be overhauled, and not just when it comes to aid. Poverty and a lack of local institutions create the shoddy conditions that make disasters deadlier than they have to be. Few of us ever do enough to prepare—even in places like New York that could afford to make necessary investments to guard against floods, hurricanes—and, yes, earthquakes—today. But in impoverished countries the failure to plan, and to have institutions that can coordinate a response, threatens millions of lives. Supporting efforts to give aid directly to local governments, and building local institutions that operate independently of foreign control will go exponentially further than cargo planes of tarps and bottled water. It’s true that we don’t always know what locals will do with that assistance, but that’s the point. It’s up to them."
Since these were posted in the middle of a heated presidential race, their few respondents regarded them as volleys in a cultural debate between softer kinds of power (including trade and negotiation) and the hard stuff (threatening to and/or blowing things up). That’s a shame, not least because it’s a silly argument. If there’s any difference between the candidates on the point, it’s superficial: Obama has used bombs and bullet points with equal aplomb throughout his presidency, and it’s inconceivable that Mitt Romney would shy away from either if elected.
Rather, the Secretary’s speech is much more interesting in the larger context of global affairs, and especially for understanding modern foreign aid and its younger, hipper cousin, investment. Addressing an audience of wealthy New Yorkers in October 2011, Clinton laid out nothing less than what the United States is trying to accomplish in the world:
"Our problems have never respected dividing lines between global economics and international diplomacy. And neither can our solutions. That is why I have put what I call economic statecraft at the heart of our foreign policy agenda. Economic statecraft has two parts: first, how we harness the forces and use the tools of global economics to strengthen our diplomacy and presence abroad; and second, how we put that diplomacy and presence to work to strengthen our economy at home.”
She then added:
"Emerging powers like India and Brazil put economics at the center of their foreign policies. When their leaders approach an international challenge, just as they do when they approach a domestic challenge, one of the first questions they ask is: How will this affect our economic growth? We need to be asking the same question, not because the answer will dictate every one of our foreign policy choices, it will not, but it must be a significant part of that equation."
In dry pixels on a screen, that all seems bleedingly obvious: Of course powers consider their domestic interests, especially economic ones, when they act abroad. They always have. But we tend to forget this whenever the conversation turns to a specific circumstance. Aruge that economic self-interest guided involvement in Libya’s civil war, for instance, and you’ll be in for dirty looks, from supporters and detractors of the intervention. Note in the wrong way, at the wrong bar, that economic self-interest has been a factor in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and you might get punched in the face. But when you keep this concept of “economic statecraft” in mind, suddenly a lot of seemingly contradictory and confusing actions and policies start to make a kind of sense.
That rule of thumb is no less useful in understanding the response to humanitarian crises. Yet how many have thought about how economic self-interest helped shape the response to the Haiti earthquake? Or considered the role those competing interests thus played in shaping the debacle that followed? The postquake response has been framed in terms of compassion, duty, maybe even security; any failures therein are thus shortcomings on some or all of those points. But as Clinton signaled in New York, understanding the impetus behind and effects of those efforts means above all taking a closer look at the economy.
In truth, a significant portion of the response in Haiti—in terms of both effort and money spent—has involved the longstanding American dream of establishing low-wage garment and other assembly factories in Haiti. This program, aimed above all at filling orders for stores like Target, Walmart, and Jos. A. Bank, has in turn been made possible by a series of trade barrier-leveling deals dating long before the earthquake. (These deals in turn are part of a much bigger vision in Washington; in her New York speech Sec. Clinton foresaw a “hemispheric trade partnership reaching from the Arctic to the tip of Argentina” that will harness “the power of proximity to turn growth across the Americas into recovery and jobs here in the United States.”)
Free trade agreements have been a bonanza for the United States, especially where businesses’ bottom lines are concerned. Economists are divided on whether they’re good or bad for poor countries in kind, but in Haiti’s case at least it’s pretty clear: The evisceration of trade barriers has been a catastrophe, in terms of the environment, food security, living standards, and its economy in general. Those policies’ effects helped make the earthquake so deadly. The calamities visited upon the Caribbean nation have not been solely the fault of trade deals, of course, and whether it’s possible to dust off old strategies without recreating their longstanding pitfalls remains to be seen. But it’s no surprise that the process hasn’t gone smoothly so far.
Understanding how such a fraught economic strategy became a central plank of a nominally humanitarian response might seem confounding, contradictory, even cynical to suggest. But as is often the case, there’s no clearer explanation than that from one of the policy’s principal architects herself. As for how that strategy backfired in the aftermath of the quake, meanwhile—well, in my economic self-interest, I’ll save that for the book.
It refers to three things: Haiti’s weak state before the earthquake (when even basic utilities had to be delivered by truck), the massive international response, and the quake itself. There is more about those ideas, and what connects them, in the introduction.
But credit must go where credit is due. I first heard the phrase in its full Kreyòl flower, ”gwo machin ki pase,” nine days after the earthquake, from a carpenter named Ancelot Jean. The father of six had lost his home and shop in Marché Salomon, and the eight members of his family were setting up a new home at the edge of the Champ de Mars plaza, under an electric lime green vendor’s umbrella, from the cell phone company Voilà.
At that point Haitians had mostly been referring to the disaster indirectly, or as “the event.” I asked Jean if he had heard any names for the earthquake. He answered:
"Only God can give what happened a name. But sometimes we call it ‘the big truck that went by.’ The big truck of death."
I heard many others use those phrases in the days that followed. Other names for the earthquake would soon arise—including the onomatopoeia that stuck, goudou goudou—but that image of the truck going by has resonated with me the most ever since.
This story is getting lost this week amid developments in the Middle East, but an enormous tragedy has befallen low-paid, unprotected garment workers producing for export.
The workers were locked inside to “protect the clothes” bound for Europe, according to a worker interviewed in this article by the New York Times. Locking the exits is a common practice in the industry: In a recent International Labor Organization survey of Haitian export export garment factories, a third kept their exits locked as well.
Expanding the garment sector is a major component of the economic plan for Haiti’s recovery. The principals have pledged to ensure better working conditions, but problems persist. More detail, of course, in the book.
Here’s some reaction to that new study from Maryland, which says a second, environmental strain of cholera contributed to the epidemic that started in Haiti two years ago.
Renaud Piarroux, a French epidemiologist whose studies showed the UN base was the likely source of the epidemic, writes in to say he’s not sold:
"The contamination of the Artibonite River by human fecal waste from UN soldiers … is really the only explanation I found after spending weeks in investigating the epidemic in Haiti and additional months in searching for other evidences that could complete this investigation. Conversely, I never heard that Rita Colwell’s opinion was the result of an extensive field investigation in Haiti. I really would have preferred to be convinced by the ‘non-UN evidences,’ but they were really not convincing."
I invited Dr. Colwell to comment on my previous post, but I haven’t heard back from her. Or as we used to say at the org: Colwell did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
By the way, an answer to one question from yesterday: The samples Colwell’s team examined were collected from eighteen towns and cities over three weeks in November 2010. That’s three to seven weeks after the outbreak began in the Central Plateau.
Dr. Rita Colwell says her team’s findings support a hypothesis that the epidemic was caused, at least in part, by environmental factors other than UN soldiers recently arrived from an outbreak in Nepal leaking excrement into a river. For corroboration, NPR’s Knox goes to Dr. David Sack at Johns Hopkins, who agrees the new study casts doubt on the “UN” hypothesis. Sack concludes we will probably never know where the epidemic, which has now killed some 7,500 people and infected more than half a million, came from.
A few thoughts:
1. Colwell and Sack have been arguing for an environmental cause of cholera since the first week of the epidemic in October 2010. After the UN evidence came to light, they have reliably pooh-poohed the UN-cholera connection. In fact, when the UN mission in Haiti started searching for answers in late 2010 and wanted someone to present a hypothesis that something other than the Nepalese soldiers were responsible for the outbreak, my sources inside the mission confirmed at the time, they called in David Sack.
You can make a similar argument against the big names backing the currently dominant hypothesis as well. Whenever you ask French epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux, he is likely to tell you that all the important evidence supports the UN being responsible for the outbreak. Piarroux being convinced by non-UN evidence, or Sack being persuaded that the UN was responsible, would be far more notable. (Disclosure: I try to keep an open mind, but you could probably say the same thing about me.)
2. According to Knox, the Colwell team’s findings don’t actually dispute that Nepalese cholera was a cause of the epidemic — just that it was the only cause. In fact, the study found the Nepalese strain in more than half of samples taken. Additionally, NPR says the non-Nepalese strain “has never been known to cause an epidemic.” To my untrained eye, that would seem to weaken the case for this other strain’s importance, but I don’t know. (Side note: According to the numbers in the NPR piece, only about 78 percent of the samples are accounted for: Half Nepalese, 21 percent non-Nepalese, 7 percent mixed. What happened to the other 22 percent? Maybe that’s in the full journal article, which I’ve reached out to Colwell to get.)
4. Some key parts of Colwell’s “perfect storm” hypothesis don’t make sense to me. She says:
"You have this massive earthquake in January 2010 … Then Haiti had one of the hottest summers on record … That was followed by a hurricane that skirted Haiti, causing heavy rain and flooding … With all the river systems churned up with nutrients and warm water, and proper alkalinity, it would be ideal for the organism to become quite dominant.”
Hurricane Tomas hit on November 5, 2010, three and a half weeks after the epidemic began. At that point more than 500 people were known to have died and at least 7,000 had been infected — both likely undercounts. Tomas skirted the far edge of Haiti’s peninsulas, missing the region where the outbreak occurred. The storm made headlines in the states but didn’t actually cause all that much damage in Haiti. In fact, articles at the time noted that it was not clear if the storm was having an effect on cholera at all.
Neither the hurricane nor the earthquake explain how “01 serotype with close resemblance to the Nepalese strain” ended up in Haiti, whether as the whole of the early epidemic or “in about half the patients sampled.”
5. All that said, I agree with Colwell and Sack that the evidence to date against the UN peacekeepers has been largely circumstantial, if also overwhelming. I discuss this in my upcoming book, which you will please be sure to buy.
6. Watch this closely going forward. The UN peacekeepers have been referring to heretofore unspecified evidence for other hypotheses since they were first fingered as the cause of the outbreak. Considering the UN is now facing a lawsuit on behalf of cholera victims that has gotten recent support on the editorial pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, I’d expect to hear more about the Colwell article being cited as counter-evidence in the weeks and months to come.
(Edited 1/19/12 at 1:33 p.m. to clarify the UN was previously referring to unspecified evidence in its favor)
Nigel Fisher, United Nations Resident & Humanitarian Coordinator, January 2012:
"As you know, more than 6,700* Haitians have succumbed to the cholera epidemic so far and almost 500,000* have been infected. If we can take any encouragement, it is that: National cholera response and alert systems are now in place in a country that had no such infrastructure before the cholera outbreak….”
The reason Haiti had no national cholera response and alert system in place was that there was no cholera. In fact there had never been a laboratory-confirmed case of cholera in Haiti, ever, until it appeared in October 2010, almost certainly introduced by United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal.
Please no one set up a national bubonic plague response system.
— * As of April 2012, the official death toll is 7,091 and case load over 534,000.
Fisher made a more important statement earlier this month in an interview posted by the UN News Centre:
"As humanitarian actors facing cholera, what we are doing is sort of patchwork, band-aid work on a fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is when cholera broke in Haiti there was no experience of it and the conditions were ripe for it to spread quickly.*"
Instead, he called for:
"… a massive investment in everything, from food hygiene to water and sanitation to education. It’s long-term and we are working out the details of that."
Those comments were cited in an editorial which ran in this morning’s Sunday New York Times, which did something Fisher still will not — put them in context of the direct responsibility Fisher’s own organization has for creating the mess in the first place:
"The United Nations bears heavy responsibility for the outbreak: its own peacekeepers introduced the disease through sewage leaks at one their encampments."
The Times editorial cites a CDC estimate that putting in adequate water and sanitation systems will cost $800 million to $1 billion. That would exceed the Haitian government’s one-year revenues, but is commensurate with the UN peacekeeping mission’s annual budget.
Clinton's Statement on the Political Situation in Haiti
Some people are having trouble finding Bill Clinton’s statement calling for the quick ratification of Haiti’s new prime minister, which came hours before the new prime minister was ratified. So I’ve pasted the text below.
Clinton has a lot of potential roles to play in this story: He was the co-chair of the reconstruction panel (along with the prime minister) that Lamothe joined; and the ex-PM, Conille, had been his former chief of staff at the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti. Whether his call to “establish a functional government within the week” (see below) helped speed the process along, reflected an outcome he knew was coming or was totally coincidental is a matter for debate. Feel free to have it in the comments below.
Here’s the text:
REVISED: Statement by President Bill Clinton on the Current Political Situation in Haiti
May 03, 2012 | New York, NY | Bill Clinton | Statements
I call on the Haitian Parliament and the Martelly administration to expedite the ratification process of the Prime Minister, and establish a functional government within the week.
I believe that the Haitian people deserve better from their leaders. The current political crisis disrupted progress towards a more prosperous Haiti for too long. While I am pleased by much of what has been achieved since President Martelly took office, Haiti’s rebuilding efforts have been delayed far too many times. Haiti must have a government with strong and transparent leadership working alongside a parliament that understands its economic, political and social challenges.
Haiti’s leaders have a responsibility to put the Haitian people first, above political differences and self interests, and to show the world that Haiti is on the right path to ensure democracy, and the rule of law, fight corruption, and restore confidence in the Haitian institutions so that donor funds can flow again and attract new investment. I stand ready to continue to assist President Martelly, Prime Minister Designate Lamothe, the parliament and Haiti’s friends in the international community to achieve this provided Haiti’s leaders act now in the best interests of the Haitian people.
So today the president of Haiti was hospitalized in Miami with a pulmonary embolism — a blood clot in the lung. (AP story.)
While he was away, armed paramilitaries who consider themselves the restored Haitian Army stormed parliament to forestall action against them by the police and/or, according to the Miami Herald, demand the quick ratification of Prime Minister-designate Laurent Lamothe.
Also according to the Herald, people with the president’s condition are often advised not to fly on airplanes until they have been stabilized.
Maybe I’ve been spending too much time writing of late, but all that reads like prologue to me.
I took a road trip to the Haitian countryside yesterday to visit my old friends at Annapurna Camp, the U.N. installation of Nepalese soldiers that I’ve reported was the probable source of the country’s horrible (and still ongoing) cholera epidemic. It had been nearly a year and a half since my first visits there in those early days of the outbreak, and as long as I’m here working on the book, I figured it would be good to check in again. Touch base, if you will.
Things there have changed in a major way. First off: It’s not Annapurna Camp anymore. Here’s the gate in 2010:
You’ll notice that the Nepalese have moved out, and a Uruguayan contingent has moved in. (A funny choice of replacement considering the other recent UN controversy in Haiti, but that aside.) From over the wall I could see that what used to be an expansive lawn near the entrance gate was now filled with more tank-like armored personnel carriers than I could count. This could be because protesters have often targeted the base since rumors and information about the cholera link spread, but I don’t know one way or the other.
Behind the base of course flows the famous river more conclusively identified by a team led by French epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux and the U.N. panel of experts as the source of the cholera epidemic. But that’s changed too. In 2010, the river ran directly behind the base:
Now the part that had been directly abutting the narrow ridge has been moved several meters away by the construction of landfill and some low-level levees. (This happened about a month ago, the people washing clothes in the river said):
Meantime, the narrow ridge where on the morning of October 27, 2010, I ran into a group of U.N. investigators clandestinely taking samples of the sewage leaking from behind the base (at that time and for long after, the U.N. was flatly denying that contamination would have even been a possibility) is now gone. My guess would be that this was done at the same time that the river was moved back, but hard to say.
Across the street, atop a hill abutting another section of river there in the village of Meille, were the dump pits where the U.N.’s hired Haitian contractor used to dump the waste from that and other Nepalese bases. Villagers said that these pits used to overflow, sometimes toward their homes and sometimes toward the river:
The section is now much harder to visit, as it is now surrounded by a long loop of military-grade concertina wire:
Why was this easily accessible when the pits were full of overflowing excrement, but the area is sealed off today? In any case, we were let inside by a villager who still uses the space to graze his goats. He, and the others living down the hill, said that life has improved greatly ever since the dumping stopped. Simply put, the village doesn’t smell like an open sewer anymore.
The good news, in other words, is that the U.N. is keeping a much tidier base in Meille than it did when cholera erupted. Hopefully while they were bulldozing and sealing off the area, they kept some good records about how it used to look. Whether such promised improvements have been made to other U.N. installations in Haiti and around the world remains to be seen.
There was one last change up the road. After leaving the base, I went looking for the home of the first young Haitian man to die in the hospital from cholera. Many of his relatives were still around, but the house was not. Faced with a disease they had never seen before, with fear mounting in the early days of the epidemic, they had burnt that house to the ground.
I found out when I got back to Port-au-Prince that the New York Times had just written an extensive tick-tock of cholera and U.N.’s likely role in introducing the epidemic to Haiti. Deborah Sontag’s story fills in some of the gaps in the year and a half since the U.N.-cholera connection was first reported. It’s worth checking out:
I’m honored to tumbl that The Big Truck That Went By has been named the winner of the 2012 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award by the Columbia Journalism School and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard (link above). It’s a very cool and unique prize given while a book is still a pile of notes and rambling scenes, with the aim of giving the author the money and time needed to finish it. I’m very thankful to the judges. It’s a heck of a vote of confidence and one I’ll strive to live up to.
Here’s what the judges had to say:
“The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster” (Palgrave Macmillan) by Jonathan M. Katz won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. The prize is given to aid the completion of a significant work of nonfiction. The judges said: “Katz is a great storyteller who enmeshes the reader in a lively web of history, incident, and examples of humanity pushing through disaster, hard luck, iniquity, and triumph to muck it up all over again.”
That doesn’t mean that they were tried in a Haitian court, of course*. That would be, by all accounts, a violation of the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, which grants the foreign soldiers operating in Haiti immunity from local prosecution.
(*A Pakistani military tribunal came to Haiti, and operated independently of both MINUSTAH and Haitian authority. The BBC reports the now ex-soldiers will serve their sentences back home.)
But does it suggest some wiggle room about where and how U.N. soldiers all over the world — Democratic Republic of Congo, the Balkans, what have you — could be held accountable for their actions?
That big question is unclear. On the one hand, this trial was actually visible to some portion of the Haitian people and press in a way that, say, whatever happened to the battalion expelled to Sri Lanka in 2007 on accusations of paying for sex with minors was not. On the other, it essentially remained an internal Pakistani matter from start to finish, with at least some Haitian press relying on such sources as Sen. Youri Latortue for information about what was going on.
The more immediate question of course is what this might mean for that other famous case, when total diplomatic immunity met a total lack of bacteriological immunity in the Artibonite. I couldn’t begin to guess, but I doubt I’m the only one wondering. Some far-flung but key newspapers have picked up this story as well.
There’s a fascinating time suck of a debate raging today about aid, donors and foreign intervention across boundaries of power. You’ve probably seen it or one of its backlash iterations: a half-hour video posted on your freshman year roommate’s Facebook page, or the Twitter hashtags #Kony2012, #StopKony2012, #StopStopKony2012 — or, as I expect soon, #StopStopStopArguingAboutKony2013.
"Kony" is the Central African warlord Joseph Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (here’s the warrant) for war crimes, rapes, murder and being generally horrible. The excitement began when a San Diego-based NGO called “Invisible Children” posted a video online calling for justice for Kony and donations for them, and the mini-doc went apeshit viral.
I know nothing about Kony, that war, or Ugandan or Congolese politics. But I’m very interested in questions about how we as citizens of a powerful country like the United States talk about and involve ourselves in the non-white, non-powerful, formerly colonized world. (And, full disclosure, instantly suspicious of anyone who claims to speak for “invisible,” “voiceless” or otherwise less-than-existant people while raising money in their name.) There’s a lot to learn from that debate about other places too, including, say, the one I should be writing a book about instead of posting on Tumblr.
In any case, here are good places to dive in to the debate:
The saga of the U.N. and cholera keeps unfolding. Today’s episode: Bill Clinton.
In response to a question from blogger Ansel Herz, the former president and U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti presented as a point of fact that U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal introduced the infection. This is pretty bold for someone with a high-flying U.N. title, and rightfully getting attention on the Haiti Twitter Webs.
Clinton’s short answer is “No.” His longer answer is: “No, but maybe next time”:
"I can’t recall ever until this cholera outbreak hit people even asking: Did these people come from a place where they have a lot of cholera or malaria or you name it, and are we sending them to a place where they don’t have that, and therefore, almost by accident, we could start an epidemic …?
And I have to tell you — at least I had never thought about it before. And insofar as I would have any influence over continuing United Nations operations it’s one question that I think that will always be asked from now on. I feel terrible about what happened here. I was moved by the response … but I don’t think this was a deliberate callous disregard for the lives of the people of Haiti. I think they had never thought about this before. And I think now, all over the world, every time there is a deployment of people from one part of the world to another, people will be asking this question.”
This echoes the U.N. panel report of May 2011, which gave a searing indictment of the peacekeepers, then avoided singling them out in a critical line of the conclusion, yet then recommended that the U.N. change its rules so what they did never happens again.
It’s basically a safe, nuanced (Clintonesque?) way of handling the problem. Making sure such an event doesn’t happen elsewhere, or again in Haiti, is certainly part of the issue. But would it even be possible to prevent such future disasters if no one is held accountable for this one? One thing I’m sure of: Clinton’s comments may re-open this conversation, but they won’t appease the lawyers who have drafted a lawsuit against the U.N. on behalf of cholera victims, nor the people who just want MINUSTAH to go.
Monday, March 12, in New York, there will be a showing of the above-named documentary, followed by a panel featuring filmmaker Michele Mitchell, Manolia Charlotin of the Boston Haitian Reporter and some guy called Jonathan M. Katz. The documentary’s description:
In January 2010, when an 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti, people across the world gave more generously than to any disaster in history. In the United States alone, half of all households gave a total of $1.4 billion to charities. Yet almost two years later more than half a million people still live in squalid camps. Only a few have access to drinking water. Sanitation is woefully inadequate. Malnutrition and cholera are on the rise. What happened?
The event is at:
Steelcase Inc. 4 Columbus Circle (58th Street & Eight Avenue) New York, NY 10019
The film starts at 6:30. There is food if you come half an hour earlier. It’s open to the public but you have to buy a ticket (information on that at the above link or this one here.)
I’ll be on a panel this Tuesday in New York at the Columbia Journalism School. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is screening a Ciné Institute documentary called “Haiti Rebuilds: A Journey of Hope.” Right after there’s a panel with one of the filmmakers, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, Haiti’s permanent representative to the UN and … me.
Should be a good time. Tuesday, 6:30 pm at the Lecture Hall, 3rd Floor - 116th St & Broadway
One of the best things about writing a book is that you get to spend hours geeking out and stumbling across ridiculous things.
This LIFE magazine spread on Haiti from 1937 is like doing mushrooms in a time machine. There are pictures and stories from the then-recent Dominican massacre. (The DR and Haiti are described as the “only two sovereign Negro states in the world (save Libera).”) LIFE notes that the US created the army and dictator that carried out the massacre, but now the Americans are back to fix things, so no worries.
Then for … context? … we get a section called “Mulatto Haitian Society dances while Black Voodoo drums in the hills.” Among pictures of dancing and Silvio Cator (the guy Port-au-Prince’s soccer stadium is named for) drinking champagne with two women (“in the correct glasses”), there’s this insight: LIFE opines that “Mulattos rule the Negro republic of Haiti, get their clothes from New York and Paris, are heartily disliked by the black population and do a very poor job of ruling.” Nevermind that the US had just ended nineteen years of Jim Crow-infused occupation that helped create that ruling class. Or is that the point of the observation? Who knows. Hey, drinks for 10 cents!
I’ve been reading the last few days about the earthquakes that destroyed colonial Port-au-Prince in 1751 and 1770. Did not know: The 1751 disaster was apparently a series of quakes that went on for over two weeks.
It goes without saying that the 2010 quake caught everyone by surprise. But had anyone heard stories about earlier big quakes in Haiti — whether those old ones, or the 1842 quake that struck the north coast, or the Great Hispaniola Quake of 1946 — before the big one hit two years ago?
No, there wasn't cholera in Haiti in 1960. How about 1860?
There has been confusion since the beginning of the cholera epidemic about exactly how long it had been since Haiti’s last outbreak. Some sources referred to supposed cholera cases there around 1960, but those are victims of a transcription error from an early CDC report. We tended to go with a 100-year estimate in our articles, assuming along with researchers that some variation of the “Love In the Time of Cholera” cholera epidemics had touched Haiti.
But we didn’t really know. That’s what historians are for, right? Well some historians looked into it and the answer is:
Seriously, never. There had never been cholera in Haiti until 2010. No, not then. No, not that time either. No, they looked at that. The authors (Deborah Jenson, Victoria Szabo and the Duke Haiti Lab) allow that it’s very hard to prove a negative. But the medical journals and other sources they researched had no reports of cholera, and in fact in some instances featured experts of the day remarking on how interesting it was that there hadn’t been cholera in Haiti despite it hitting other places including the Dominican Republic. Their explanation for this seeming anomaly is that cholera was breaking out in countries where there were still slavery and influxes of foreign soliders. (The sixth pandemic was going on when the U.S. occupied Haiti, but I don’t know of anywhere it showed up in the Caribbean.) Then in 2010: Foreign soldiers. Not sure it’s the definitive answer, but it’s good that people are looking for this stuff.
Welcome to the new tumblr for my upcoming book about Haiti, the earthquake and what’s happened since. You can stay tuned for updates about the book’s progress. You can use the comment fields, email and other buttons to share your own ideas, experiences and reflections. Or, hell, why not do both? Like it says above, stick around and share your thoughts. Na pale.