1 Notes

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:


'Expert' cholera panel turns against UN (storified)

1 Notes

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 …

1 Notes

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.



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 facebook.com/thebigtruckthatwentby


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 facebook.com/thebigtruckthatwentby

2. Click “Like”

3. Nap tann ou la.


(Photo from http://www.ahundredmonkeys.com/)

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.