Attentive viewers sat outside the overflowing Franklin Humanities Institute Garage as journalist Jonathan Katz read about busted windows and corrupt government officials Wednesday evening.
The Washington Office on Latin America and the University named Katz’ book, “The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,” the recipient of the 2013 WOLA-Duke Human Rights Book Award. Katz, a Durham resident, is a former Associated Press correspondent and was the only full-time American correspondent in Haiti at the time of the 2010 earthquake. The award honors a current, non-fiction book in English that addresses democracy, human rights and social justice in modern Latin America.
“It’s difficult for an outsider to understand Haiti,” Katz read. “The more I understood the story, the less I would understand.”
At the event, Katz read a chapter from his book, which tells the story of the day the earthquake hit and explores the complex aftermath of the disaster in Haiti—a country ill-equipped to handle the disaster on its own—as it was flooded with foreign aid efforts. A reception hosted by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the Duke Human Rights Center followed.
An audience member asked Katz about his thoughts on the roles of non-governmental organizations and whether any specific ones stood out.
“Basically who are the good guys?” Katz responded.
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He went on to explain that few NGOs are “particularly nefarious” but that as a result of criticism, many organizations are beginning to change their philosophies to work more closely with people from indigenous countries. He said that as successful NGOs, such as Paul Farmer, Trinity '82, and his Partners in Health, grow larger, the larger size can lead to a loss of efficiency.
“There are people out there who are offering the criticism themselves, and they understand many of these things being done are empty gestures,” Katz said. “The solution to these big problems are really structural.”
Katz portrayed Haiti well, said Kathy Walmer, adjunct assistant professor at Duke Global Health and executive director of Family Health Ministries—the NGO that partnered with a former DukeEngage Haiti program.
“He has really captured the problems that are intrinsic about being an NGO in Haiti,” she said. “I could see myself in that book quite often.”
Katz added that problems with the United States’ foreign aid policies are a result of insufficient pressure from Congress to move past “ritual mobilizations” of money and supplies.
“Congress, they don’t want to think about it,” he said. “It requires looking at the world differently than they like to look at it.”
Robin Kirk, program director of the Duke Human Rights Center and one of the judges for the WOLA-Duke Book Award, said the award is intended to increase discussion of human rights. She noted that the earthquake in Haiti, in particular, raised a lot of questions about the cycle of poverty in the country and the impact of charity.
Holly Ackerman, librarian for Latin America and Iberia at Duke University libraries and another award judge, said the committee chose Katz’s book because it dealt with human rights in a way useful to academics but also interesting to the general public.
“An ordinary person could sit down and enjoy and become immersed in it, but it also has all these thorny issues about how did aid go wrong that would be of interest to academics,” Ackerman said.
Katz noted that he did not intend the book for any particular audience.
“The book is for the only person I can be sure would read it, which was me,” Katz said.
The book’s readership has mostly been in the United States so far, but Katz said he hopes to get the book translated into Creole or French so it will be accessible to a larger Haitian audience. The few English copies available in Haiti sold out.
The book is written from Katz’s perspective as a non-Haitian, but is also a journalistic piece.
“I will fight anyone in here who thinks there is no such thing as objectivity in journalism,” he said, but encouraged readers to recognize the personal filters through which he and other authors write.
He spoke about the challenges of fully conveying what happens on the ground as a reporter.
“You have to be there beating everybody else on investigative stories, but also making sure nothing slips through,” Katz said. “Fairly soon after the earthquake, I got into my head that maybe this is the sort of thing that requires a longer telling.”
He noted the importance of providing context when reporting on events. Katz said that he chose to write a book because the concise nature of news stories could not fully capture everything he observed.
After he started writing each of the scenes for the book, he said that even 100,000 words did not seem like enough.
“It really had to do with multiple points of view, getting as far as you can into the facts,” Katz said.
Katz noted that he would like to write another book but is unsure what it will be about, though he plans to come back to writing about Haiti eventually. Currently, he is working as a freelance journalist.
Audience reception to Katz’s reading and discussion was largely positive.
Dane Emmerling, a research associate in the Developing World Healthcare Technology Lab in the biomedical engineering department, said he appreciated Katz bringing attention to the powerful topic of how people donate money to charity and choose organizations to support.
“We often don’t do the diligence required in understanding the repercussion of all of these impacts that we have abroad,” Emmerling said.
Sophomore Suhani Jalota, who read portions of the book for her class on ethics of infectious disease, said she appreciated Katz’s ability to write in an engaging style, while bringing together several different stories.
She noted that she agreed with many of the nuanced points that Katz emphasized, such as the limits of how effective money alone can be in development.
“I’m glad people are writing such books about what’s actually happening in reality,” Jalota said.
This is the sixth annual awarding presentation of the WOLA-Duke Book Award. The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library serves as the repository for the WOLA’s documents. The award was created around the same time that the relationship between WOLA and Duke was negotiated in 2008, said Patrick Stawski, human rights archivist at Rubenstein.
As a result of the award, many of the authors also submit their papers to the University archive, Stawski noted.