Posts tagged haiti

1 Notes

Tavis Smiley interviews Jonathan M. Katz about Haiti’s post-quake reconstruction, and a massive cholera epidemic caused by UN troops sent to help the ailing country. The only full-time U.S. correspondent in Haiti during the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, Katz broke the story that UN soldiers were likely responsible for the epidemic nine months later. His book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, recently won the Overseas Press Club of America award for the best nonfiction book of the year. Aired May 13, 2014, on PBS.

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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.

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)

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.

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My interview about the UN and cholera with @ViewFromTheCave, over on Humanosphere

On the epidemic, the “Maryland” report, and the outlook for the future.


Check out this New York Times video on Caracol, the new factory zone being constructed in the north of Haiti with heavy U.S. support.


Epidemiologist vs. Epidemiologist

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.

1 Notes

New (non-UN) cholera evidence?

NPR’s Richard Knox reports on a new wrinkle in the story of how cholera got to Haiti. A team based in Maryland has published a study that found 21 percent of cholera patients in Haiti were infected with a non-Nepalese strain of the disease.

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.)

3. It’s not clear from the NPR piece when these samples were taken. That’s important, because we know that cholera can and does evolve once it has been introduced.

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.

The earthquake, meanwhile, struck ten months before and was over 50 miles from the outbreak zone, which is probably why Colwell was quoted at the time in a Richard Knox article titled “Earthquake not to blame for cholera outbreak in Haiti.”

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)

3 Notes

Worst Logic of the Year, Cholera Division

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.

UPDATE 5/13/12: 

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.

Stay tuned.

Fisher quote h/t @HaitiJustice