MINUSTAH: Not going anywhere

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.


Speech at the Clinton School on Haiti, aid, and ‘The Big Truck That Went By’

1 Notes

The first part of my interview this month with Democracy Now. Part 2 is on their site.

I did a whole spate of interviews around the book’s release and the third anniversary of the earthquake. You can see more over at


Migration (Or, HEY LOOK OVER THERE.)

Queridos Tumblreros,

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:

_ Post-disaster myths in Haiti and New York (Daily Beast).

_ A little investigative work for Gawker about the Red Cross after Sandy.

_ Some follow-up on FB.

In summary:

1. Go to

2. Click “Like”

3. Nap tann ou la.


(Photo from

1 Notes

On disaster planning

"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."

—Excerpt from The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (Palgrave Macmillan, January 2013) 


On ‘economic statecraft,’ or how to put a shine on self-interest

An interesting pair of tweets yesterday from the State Department:

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.


Liv la nan figi

Go see the book’s new Facebook page, which you can like, and where you can like other things. And who knows? The things might like you back.

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2 Notes

Gwo Machin

With publication approaching in January, people have been asking me about the title: What exactly was The Big Truck That Went By?

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.

You can read the original AP article about Jean’s family here.

Or pre-order the book here, here, or even here.

(Photo: Detail of painting by Maxan Jean Louis, 2010)

3 Notes

Pre-order now! Click above. (If, you know, you want to.)

Pre-order now! Click above. (If, you know, you want to.)

1 Notes

289 dead at Pakistani garment factory where owners locked exits

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.