Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Future for Haiti

Look at this picture.

What comes to your mind. Do you think, 1) what a cute smile, and go on about your day, 2) This boy looks sick, let’s put together a care package and send it to Haiti, or 3) how can I bring about change to prevent this from happening to the next generation?

All 3 reactions are ok in my book. I think the first reaction happens in people who can’t relate well enough to a picture. But if they met this boy in person I think they would join one of the next two groups. The second group has the needs of this boy in mind. He’s sick and they want to make him well. And that’s ok too because this boy deserves to live a long and healthy life.

The third reaction I can tell you is a long and difficult road. Many people can’t imagine where to start so they take to the second group. Others start out on this path and eventually encounter enough obstacles that they return to the second path. But a few, despite the obstacles, persevere on the third path. They are the dreamers, the optimists. They see a day when Haiti will stand on its own, even when the Haitian people don’t see it.

Haiti is flooded with aid in all forms. There are churches, hospitals, clinics, schools, orphanages, youth homes and feeding and reforestation programs. There’s the World Bank building roads all over Haiti right now. And it’s almost all a donation. Every one of these programs seems to have their own ideas on how to “fix” Haiti. Most are in it to meet immediate needs. But a few are trying to give the Haitian people a chance to change their future.

To date I’ve had a pretty skeptical opinion of orphanages in Haiti. To me they seem pointless other than as a ploy to get money from the States. It’s an integral part of Haitian culture to send children from families that don’t have enough to provide to those who do. And it’s worked for generations. Until white guys showed up and decided they could do it better. But the other day I decided to go and see for myself exactly what they do.

I went to the most reputalbe orphanage around, the Cambels, on the other side of Pignon. They started 7 years ago with only a handful of kids and are now housing 47 children. Most of the children they take on would have died from malnutrition were it not for their intervention. They run a feeding program for area families and are going to start a temporary housing program to teach mothers to care for their malnourished children.

One of my friends here in Haiti is very pro-orphanage and was excited to hear what I had to say after my visit. I said I was very impressed. If I were to run an orphanage, that’s how I’d do it. But where does it end? How did those children get so malnourished and what can we do to prevent it? For every child that showed up at the orphanage and was saved perhaps there is another who didn’t make it. What about those that didn’t make it, who’s working for them?

Here’s what we know. The leading cause of death in Haiti is intestinal disease caused by drinking dirty water or poor sanitation. Worms or germs from feces make into people by eating with dirty hands, flies landing on feces and then on uncovered food, or drinking contaminated water. The solution is to educate people to wash their hands, use a toilet, cook food well, cover food and protect or treat drinking water.

Sadly, here's what intestinal disease looks like.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” But how many really believe this and have the foresight to follow through. I’m not saying to ignore the immediate needs of the child who is malnourished. We need people to meet those needs. But we need an army of people to look beyond the immediate needs and work toward a Haiti that can stand on its own.

To do this involves not only education but changing behaviors. This is not an easy task and not something that happens overnight. I use the analogy of smoking in the United States. Look at the PR campaign and the amount of time that it has taken to change this one behavior in a country that has an educated government with the needs of the people in mind (usually). The government in Haiti has very few resources and is full of corruption. The road here is only that much longer and steeper.

The logo for Haiti Outreach states, “Working Together, Building Communities”. That’s what we do here every day. And it makes my head ache. I’m exhausted and despite a heart overflowing with pride at the few small victories I’ve had I’ll be happy to be back on American soil in one more month.
Those of us who have a special place in our hearts for Haiti are hoping that the earthquake will be an opportunity for a new beginning. I hope it changes the course for Haiti. I hope that the government decides to put the needs of the people before their own selfish needs. I hope those of us working in Haiti, before embarking on a project ask ourselves the question, “How does this end, how do we as aid workers work ourselves out of a job”. And most of all I hope the Haitian people never forget the earthquake. I hope they start thinking about their future, shoot for the stars and perhaps get the moon.

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