Book Review: The Big Truck That Went By

It has been said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and nowhere do we see the truth of this more vividly than in Jonathan M. Katz’s The Big Truck That Went By. Katz shines a bright, unforgiving light on the bureaucracy, politics, and infighting between NGO’s that often due more harm than good over the long term with their emergency response to massive disasters.

The earthquake that devastated Haiti in January, 2010 generated one of the largest and most costly recovery efforts of modern times. And yet millions of donor pledges never made it to the people who needed it most. Pledged money was never released by the governments that promised aid. Donations made to international charities to help Haiti got spent on the charities’ normal operating expenses. Unscrupulous businesses cut behind-the-scenes deals to make sure pledged money was used to by supplies and services from their companies at considerable profit. And all the while, the people of Haiti were left wondering if their own government was stealing all of the alleged money that was promised even though the local government had been stripped of any control during the reconstruction.

The book highlights the piecemeal, often offensively patronizing, way international disaster relief works. By refusing to give money directly to the Haitian government, citing concerns for corruption, donor nations instead force Haiti to submit to an international, third party committee to oversee how the money is spent. Of course, this results in even less transparency and accountability even as the Haitian government takes the blame for the lack of progress. It also shows how things that seem like no-brainers (delivering free medical services and food) actually hurt the local economy (local food suppliers and medical practitioners driven out of business). And how corporations, such as the garment industry, use such disasters as opportunities to take advantage of poorer countries for cheap labor.

Katz spares no one, not even himself as a journalist reporting on the disaster for AP, from scrutiny. There is a distinct undercurrent of raw anger in the narrative. It is an honest, righteous anger that transfers easily to the reader as senseless roadblock after roadblock is thrown up against the reconstruction by various factors all vying to control the situation for their own benefit. More poignantly, we witness the actual struggles of the people of Haiti in intimate detail as they try their best to get along with their lives.

For anyone who wonders why third-world countries continue to struggle after the billions of dollars pledged to them over the decades, this book will open your eyes to the horrors often inflicted in the name of charity.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher.

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