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How to Avoid Doing Harm When You Want to Do Good: A Conversation with Jonathan M. Katz

The flag of Haiti.

As the only full-time American reporter in Haiti during 2010’s devastating earthquake, Jonathan M. Katz was uniquely positioned to tell the story of the disaster and subsequent relief and recovery efforts in his 2013 book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. He took on the project, he writes, “to understand how a massive humanitarian effort, led by the most powerful nation in the world—my country—could cause so much harm and heartache in another that wanted its help so badly.”

In a recent interview with the author, I asked him when he recognized that the book needed to be written. That realization came in the year following the earthquake. He wanted to create, “something to relate all of the stories and images coming out of Haiti into one self-contained narrative.” The timing of the book, he continued, also aligned with, “a very important conversation going on in the world about development, aid, and foreign policy in general. I thought this would be a good opportunity to share a chapter of that story that doesn’t always get as much attention.”

With The Big Truck That Went By, Katz weaves together a personal, detailed account of the earthquake and its aftermath with a concise history of the country, its political system, and its relationship with the world leading up to, during, and after the earthquake. The story of Haiti provides one heartbreaking example after the next of foreign interventions gone wrong, as well as valuable lessons for those of us who are supporters of, or even hope to make our careers in, some of the organizations that led the international response.

In the book, Katz wonders if our energy and efforts are ultimately helping those who have suffered. The answer, at least in Haiti, was no

Making an investment

Katz writes of aid workers on the ground in Haiti: “The problem often was that these individuals were merely the vanguard of distant, massive organizations whose managers seemed less interested in nuances or painful lessons on the ground. And their—our—ability to report back on those nuances was inhibited by the fact that we were viewing life through a bubble, separated by language, class, and divisions that stretched back farther than Haitian history.” Though much of the system seems to be working against them, I asked him what workers in the field could do, if anything, to prevent another botched response like the one in Haiti.

"I think the most important thing, if you’re going to be working somewhere, is to put in the time. Spend a lot of time. Don’t fly in because the place happens to be at the top of the news today and then fly out as soon as something else comes to top it off. One of the major things that we see in Haiti is that the people who are most effective are the people and organizations that are there working for a very long time. And one of the things these effective organizations tend to do is to more and more take a back seat to the leadership, the ingenuity, and the efforts of the people who actually live there.

It’s an extremely difficult balance. If your boss tells you to get on a plane and deploy and it happens to be the day after something happened, and you’re on the plane ride over trying to think of ways not to screw it up, the sad reality is it’s probably too late. When you get there, recognize the fact that you’re just landing for the first time, and hopefully find some people who can really lead the way.”

The need to invest wisely and patiently in homegrown infrastructure, whether as a private donor or a foreign government, is a key lesson of the book, though the question of what can be done better after disaster strikes also warrants Katz’s attention. He gives due credit to the heroism of the people on the ground in the hours immediately following the earthquake and the many lives they saved, but a lot also went terribly wrong. As he stated in our interview,

“That’s one of the big ironies, and one of the big tragedies of the response in Haiti. Haitians were looked at as being almost an obstacle to what the aid groups, and the militaries, and a lot of the foreign entities were trying to accomplish, as opposed to what they were, which was the survivors of the disaster, the people who are going to have to live with the results.

If you find yourself in a situation where you have a great plan and you can imagine it coming together great and the only problem is that the people in the country aren’t cooperating with you, you probably did it wrong. But really the day the disaster strikes, that’s the first date you know for sure it’s too late. This kind of work needs to be done over a long period of time before the crisis."

The power of perception

So what can we do better, even if we aren’t there in person? For one, we can all be smarter about the way we consume and relate to news reports coming out of disaster zones. Which is, of course, easier said than done, when the news is coming from a far off location and we readers have limited access and information. Katz continued:

“The job of media, especially of journalists, is so important because, especially if you’re talking about foreign correspondents, they’re giving you information that you probably can’t get from anywhere else. You can read critically, you can try to interpret and interrogate what you’re reading; approach a news story the way a journalist would in terms of even reading it.

I’m a journalist so when I’m reading other people’s news stories, I’m reading them and I’m absorbing the information that they’re giving me, but I’m also thinking: Who are their sources here? Does this make sense? What kind of information are they giving me and how can I compare this to other things I know? You know, just do your best to read it or watch it, and ask questions.”

What’s more, by reading informed accounts like Katz’s, we can better educate ourselves about the realities on the ground. He dispels a number of myths and prejudices people tend to have about disaster zones, especially when they pop up in already troubled nations. Looting and rioting are just two examples, and as he explains in the book, “while some Haitians committed crimes after the quake, far more appeared to be doing everything possible to restore a sense of security.” In fact, all evidence suggests that the cholera outbreak, perhaps the most devastating incidents detailed in the book besides the earthquake itself, was introduced by United Nations soldiers living in Haiti as part of an ongoing mission predating the earthquake, and would never have happened had those individuals taken steps to protect the local population.

Be nice

Katz’s personal experience of the earthquake and its aftermath serves primarily as a lens through which to view the bigger picture rather than a focal point, but he does reveal some of his own struggles over the course of the crisis, struggles that likely resonate especially with NGO workers, volunteers, and others in highly stressful situations. On the issue of post-traumatic stress, Katz replied:

“People think that it’s a question of strength or weakness. They don’t want to appear weak to their colleagues, they want to show that they’re able to withstand the pressure and the stress and to keep working despite all of it, but that’s not really doing anybody any favors. The whole idea of working in aid and development is that you’re responsible for peoples’ lives. You don’t want to get anywhere near the point where you can’t function, cause if you get to the point where you notice that you can’t function anymore, you’ve probably already been useless for a couple of days or weeks.

It’s really important to give people rest and to take their concerns seriously. This is a huge issue in journalism and I know it’s a big issue with much of the aid and development world, as well.”

Another helpful step in defusing stressful, volatile situations?

Be nice.

One of the difficulties is that, often, the person who’s farthest away from the disaster or the crisis or the war is probably in a higher-ranking position and maybe ultimately off in an office somewhere, maybe in a completely different country.

 If you’re in the office, be nice to the person in the field. If you’re in the field, but you’re not right at the spot where the bombs are going off or the people are trapped in the rubble, be nice to the person right next to the bombs and the rubble. And if you’re right next to the bombs and the rubble but not in the bombs and the rubble---maybe you just came in afterwards and you’re from somewhere else, a different country, and it’s not your family, it’s not your friends---be nice to the people whose families and whose country it is.”

You can follow Jonathan M. Katz on Twitter @KatzOnEarth and find the book here.

About the Author | Kari's underlying philosophy of work in the nonprofit sector is that we need to ensure equal and easy access to the things that make us who we are: the arts, culture, and lifelong learning. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, she received her Master’s of Nonprofit Organizations from Case Western Reserve University and spends her time as a Consultant with Grants Plus and member of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network's national board of directors. When she's not cheering on the Cavs or scouting out the nearest coffee spot, you can find her posting on Facebook,Twitter and LinkedIn.

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