The gleaming white hospital appears out of nowhere in the bustle of this impoverished city in the Central Plateau of Haiti.
It seems even more out of place when you consider what’s inside: 300 beds — more than All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. Six operating rooms. A neonatal intensive care unit. A CT scanner, the only one available to the public in Haiti. Most important, patients. More than 10,000 have seen clinicians since the hospital opened this spring.
It’s one of the few visible signs of progress since the 2010 earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince.
More than half of American households donated after the earthquake to help a poor country with bad luck. But for the most part, the grand plans of building back better have not materialized. The 1.5 million people living in tents after the earthquake are fewer, but many were forcibly evicted. A garment factory and a luxury hotel, both underwritten by aid, opened with fanfare. These milestones hardly amount to a resounding victory for the people of Haiti.
Against this disappointing effort, L’hopital Universitaire de Mirebalais (University Hospital) stands out as a testament to how much can be accomplished in Haiti. It can teach us how to achieve rebuilding and development with effective aid that endures, and better deliver on the generosity of the American people.
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The popular narrative would tell you the recovery fell short because Haiti is difficult, unstable, dangerous and corrupt. Just a few days after the quake, New York Times columnist David Brooks blamed Haiti’s trouble on “progress-resistant cultural influences.” It’s a facile explanation of a complex place, but a lot of people found it convincing.
My experience has led me to believe something else. I lived in Port-au-Prince for nine months and now work in Boston at Partners in Health, the global health nonprofit that built University Hospital under the guidance of Brooksville native Dr. Paul Farmer. In my view, the problem lay not with the Haitians but the aid industry that came to their rescue.
The earthquake recovery was largely composed of nonprofit organizations that are more eager to please donors than the people they purport to serve. Too often, they pay lip service to working with communities while largely ignoring them in designing their programs. Many of the so-called experts on alleviating poverty had little experience in Haiti and no plans to stay long term.
I saw this firsthand during my time working for Fonkoze, an exceptional Haitian microfinance bank serving the rural poor. I attended an aid organization’s workshop to create a website to help poor, rural people improve their lives with information — people who are mostly illiterate and lack access to electricity, computers and the Internet. I heard an American aid worker complaining that the luxury housing provided by her nonprofit employer didn’t have enough style.
It seemed like so much money went to Haiti after the earthquake, but less than 1 percent of the $2.4 billion in immediate earthquake relief went directly to the government of Haiti.
In the longer-term recovery effort, the U.S. development agency USAID spent $1.15 billion, more than half going to American firms in the D.C. area and less than 1 percent to Haitian firms and nonprofits, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Haitians weren’t in charge of the projects, but they shoulder the blame for failures. Their country is characterized as a black hole for aid.
If national systems are weak, diverting money and projects away from the government only worsens the problem. It isn’t easy to work with a government that is chronically short of resources, but it’s the only way to strengthen the public sector to ensure the rights of its citizens.
There are many problems with the way aid works, but at the root of it is how we view the poor and disadvantaged, and more broadly, any group of people we seek to serve.
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Beneath the complexity of actors and projects, the core of the problem is a misinterpretation of poverty.
As well intentioned as they can be, both aid and charity take the subtle view that there is something inherently wrong with the people being served. Otherwise, the argument goes, why would they need our help?
In reality, disadvantaged people are systematically deprived of the basic rights that would enable them to rise out of poverty — food, clean water, decent sanitation, housing, jobs, health care and education. The ambitions of aid are often too small, focusing on modest, short-term interventions instead of the long, painstaking work of building systems to ensure rights, in partnership with the government and local institutions.
In Haiti, this denial of rights is not innocent, but the result of centuries of international interference and oppression. A couple of recent examples: Just a decade ago, on claims that Haiti’s government was interfering with the elections of eight senators, the United States blocked international loans to improve water and sanitation systems. In 2010, less than a year after the earthquake, a U.N. peacekeeping force inadvertently brought an epidemic of cholera to Haiti by dumping its sewage in a major river system. Cholera has since killed more than 8,000 people and sickened more than one in 20 Haitians.
Instead of fixating on personal failings of the people of Haiti, we should work with them to build systems that ensure access to education, health care and food. The rights-based approach guides us to imagine doing more than offering castoff goods and services — the XXL T-shirts or the expired medicines or the spring break service trips. Pragmatically, a human rights approach works better because it confronts difficult, interconnected problems with significant solutions, not small, cheap interventions like chlorine for purifying drinking water or transitional shelters that, by themselves, offer little hope of lasting change.
Partners In Health, along with its sister organization, Zanmi Lasante, works to improve the quality of care in the public health system, collaborating with Haitian communities and the government to train health care workers, develop new services and improve rundown facilities, including building top-quality infrastructure.
In the case of University Hospital, the Haitian government identified the need for a national teaching hospital after the earthquake, and Partners in Health/Zamni Lasante worked alongside the Haitian Ministry of Health to design and construct the $17 million facility, with the help of many in-kind donations. Through a public-private partnership, the government and Partners in Health/Zamni Lasante will contribute to operating costs, and management of the hospital will gradually transition to the government over the next 10 years.
Partners in Health builds open-ended partnerships that don’t end when the earthquake donations dry up, offering a greater chance at slow, lasting progress on entrenched problems of poverty and inequality. We call this “accompaniment,” to convey a shared journey.
Developing partnerships based on empathy and pragmatic solidarity — not pity or even sympathy — is the essential first step in serving people in need.
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Early on May 23, nurses and doctors dressed in blue scrubs and prepared for University Hospital’s first surgical case. The instruments were sterilized, positive air pressure minimized the risk of infection, and Haitian nurses provided anesthesia. Dozens of partners — corporations, generous donors of time and money, medical professionals, and Mirebalais housekeepers — had worked together to make this day a reality. It wouldn’t have been possible without years of work to strengthen the health system in the Central Plateau, so that patients could be connected to care from their homes to the hospital.
The patient was a 60-year-old Haitian woman and mother of four, diagnosed with breast cancer by a Haitian doctor. A Haitian surgeon from Mirebalais and his American counterpart worked side by side in a fully equipped operating room to perform the mastectomy. As with all work at University Hospital, procedures like this serve two purposes — first, and most important, to heal the patient with a standard of care that compares to a top-quality teaching hospital anywhere else in the world, and second, to train Haitian medical professionals to provide that kind of care. With this operation, the Haitian woman has received new hope and a greater chance of living longer with a better quality of life.
In the United States, there would be no question that a woman with breast cancer receives care — including a mastectomy — to save her life, and health facilities provide it routinely. Yet development experts debate whether this care is worth the cost in low-income countries. Should we spend the money on and invest the time in systems, with the necessary infrastructure, equipment, supply chains and drugs, to treat complex cases like cancer?
The patients in need of care and their doctors always say yes. Our role is to support them.
University Hospital was built in less than three years, long enough for the majority of earthquake responders to come and go. It will serve the people of Haiti long into the future, a testament to how much can be accomplished when you view the people you seek to help as equal partners.
Stephanie Garry is a former Tampa Bay Times staff writer. She is a development communications specialist at Partners in Health staff in Boston. Views are her own.