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Jonathan Katz: "There was an opportunity to do aid differently. That opportunity was lost.”

The American journalist on Haiti, his new book, and why the earthquake relief effort has failed.

On January 12, 2010 a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck fifteen miles outside Port-au-Prince, the capital of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It levelled the city. Poorly constructed buildings made of over-stretched concrete collapsed en-masse, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. Months later, an outbreak of Cholera claimed thousands more.

Former AP correspondent Jonathan Katz was the only full-time American correspondent in Haiti when the earthquake hit. He had lived in the country for two and a half years, and stayed on throughout the reconstruction efforts.

Over  $10 billion was pledged to Haiti in an outpouring of relief funds and private donations. So why, three years on, is Haiti no better off? “Nearly a million are still homeless...rubble, some mixed with human remains, still chokes much of the city. At last count, more than half the reconstruction money that was supposed to be delivered as of 2011 remains an unfulfilled promise,” writes Katz in the introduction to his new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. Misspent aid money, reneged pledges, lack of funds given directly to the Haitian government, cultural misunderstandings and corrupt self-interest are just a few of the issues that allowed the effort to fail, Katz argues.

I wanted to write this book 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.

People remember the Haiti earthquake as both an unimaginable disaster and a milestone humanitarian effort. Your thesis is that the relief effort failed - and in some ways became a disaster itself. Why did things turned out this way?

Things haven’t gone well because the same mistakes that were made before the earthquake, the mistakes that made the earthquake so destructive, were repeated after the earthquake. It was a transformative disaster that, in addition to disfiguring the landscape of Haiti and Port-au-Prince, was also an opportunity to do aid differently, and to recast the relationship between Haiti and the international community - particularly the United States, France and Canada. And that opportunity was lost. We seem so entrenched in our attitudes and our ways of doing things that even despite the enormity of this disaster we were unable to change.

The tone of your book was not so much pessimistic as desperate. You write that you initially believed Hillary Clinton when she pledged to ‘do things differently’ and resist ‘falling back on old habits’, which of course didn’t happen. Was the relief effort incapable or just lazy?

Change is hard. Change is always hard, especially any change that asks you to hold yourself accountable for people for whom you were not previously accountable. Here’s one way of putting it: to do aid differently asks us to fundamentally alter our understanding of who we are and what we are capable of. Part of that is realizing we’re not always a force for good. Aid and disaster response is often looked upon as a gift: “we didn’t have to help, but you’re in need so I’m going to save you.”

And you’re saying that’s a problem, because there is a presumption that whoever plays the ‘savior’ role inherently knows what’s best?

Right. It’s the attitude of a parent to a child. When you read the pamphlets from USAID and various other development agencies, they will use a broadly philosophical, almost novelistic language. But what I’m trying to show is that this has not been a relationship of unalloyed good. It has also been a relationship of unalloyed evil. There are plenty of people who will tear your ear off about how the United States has tried to screw Haiti up from the beginning – and I don’t think that’s accurate - but we do have to understand that we’ve been affecting Haiti for a long time with our trade and immigration policies. So it’s not a question of whether we should be involved; it’s a question of how we should be involved. To use poker terms: we are pot committed.

You write about people losing interest in the Haitian plight a few months after the earthquake. How do you maintain the public’s interest in a reconstruction effort once they’ve donated their money?

It’s a good question. When talking about a poor country in crisis, there’s this idea of the commodity of attention: that if we can only pay attention things will get better, and if things are getting worse it’s because we have withheld our attention.

But attention is not always good. Celebrities are big on attention, it’s what they do, going to a country to ‘raise awareness’. I’m not saying that’s bad, but attention in-and-of itself doesn’t mean anything, especially in the way that it is often meted out to Haiti. Celebrities and sportsmen come to raise awareness by pointing out a hungry child with a pot belly and saying “it’s so sad but there’s still hope, so please give money to UNICEF”. And then they leave and they’ve done nothing. All they’ve done is perpetuate a stereotype about a Haitian child and called for the perpetuation of a political, industrialized kind of aid.

If people care enough to be reading my book or travelling to Haiti, they need to use their contributions in a smarter way. You can’t save everybody, but focus your attention on one thing you care about and understand it as deeply as you can. That will ultimately go a lot farther. And get rid of the industrialized savior complex.

After living in a disaster zone, would you say the ‘savior complex’ is a dynamic perpetuated only by foreigners, or is it more nuanced than that?

It’s absolutely true that it’s more complicated than we often assume. In America the debate often takes on the same shape as the debate on welfare in Britain. The conversation about Haiti has the same tone of ‘dependency’ and ‘laziness’, because Haitians often do look at any white person that comes to their country as a purveyor of aid. But it doesn’t mean that they’re waiting for our largess. They’re working very hard and trying to manage their lives.

Every reporter will go to Haiti and see so much activity - streets full of people selling and trading and trying to make money any way they can. It is insane to think you’re looking at a place that we report as 40-70% unemployment. There’s a word in Haitian Creole, dégagé, which basically translates as “muddling through” or “hustling”, every hour of every day just to get by. The aid industrialized countries give to Haiti is part of dégagé, you as a foreigner are part of dégagé, but we’re not the whole thing. Haitians are capable of taking care of themselves, they just need the tools. Dignity is one of the most important things in Haitian life. Go to any tent camp, even if it's absolute squalor and the latrines are overflowing, people will walk past you with their clothes all coordinated. They may just have one dress and one ribbon but by god they’re going to work it.

You reveal that much of the aid money went to investing in the Haitian garment industry. Was this just another ‘quick fix’ that fits our Western model of what a developing job market should be?

Yeah, absolutely. Of course the garment industry seems an attractive industry for Americans, because it’s good for us too.

But you don’t really buy it, do you?

It has a lousy track record. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but having garment factories as the centerpiece of the economy is problematic because the entire principle of the garment industry is that it goes where wages are lowest. So every time the Haitian government raises the minimum wage, that presents a problem for the industry and it’s less likely that new jobs will be created.

Money should go to investing in businesses that are producing for the Haitian market. It’s not like these factories are making clothes for Haitians; they are off-shore battery production for other countries. Outside the existing garment factories in Port-au-Prince there are women sitting on the street selling clothes from Panama. As an American I’m wearing my fashionable, quality controlled clothes made in Haiti, while the women who work in that factory have to buy crappy second-hand clothes that have just come off a boat.

What Haiti needs is a functioning, robust society that is full of domestic institutions and is capable of supporting itself.

The Big Truck is also very personal. You discuss your own experience of PTSD, shock, and your struggles as a journalist. How was writing a book different from reporting?

It was very liberating. I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode when Homer is in a space shuttle and slams into an ant farm. The ants realize the glass is broken and start shouting “freedom, terrible freedom!”That’s what it was like - I thought, wow, I can write whatever I want.  

The book is personal because I wanted to portray myself accurately, to let readers know who was filtering this experience for them.  We all come with our biases. I wanted to confront head on the fact that I did have some skin in the game, that I did have emotions here, and it was a necessary trade off for being able to tell the type of story that I did. On the afternoon of January 12 I thought I was being moved to Afghanistan.  It just goes to show, never make predictions.

The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster by Jonathan Katz is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

* This article was amended 21st January, 10am to reflect that Jonathan Katz was not the only American journalist but the only full-time American correspondent in Haiti when the earthquake struck.

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.