Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti: Partners in Health

As with other timely affairs, I'm quite late in blogging about this. You all have probably already made donations for aid in Haiti. But if you haven't, I just want to put a plug in for Partners in Health. You can check out their website, and it's very easy to donate.

Two colleagues and I have spent the last few years studying engineers' responses to humanitarian crises and development projects. Our book, Engineering and Sustainable Community Development, should hopefully be out by the beginning of March. Anyway, one of the things we've looked at is how--though incredibly well-intentioned--a lot of aid and development projects fail. The reasons for this are many and varied, but one of the most important ones is that people/aid agencies/experts swoop in with plans and ideas for the poor people they're trying to "help." In the very best cases, they do provide some immediate aid; in most cases, there is not much change; and in some cases, they do more harm than good.

One book I've found particularly inspiring as we've done this research is Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains. It's an incredible story, and if you're looking for some good, fast-moving reading, I urge you to check it out. It tells the story of Harvard-trained nutball doctor Paul Farmer, who has established a medical clinic in Haiti called Zanmi Lasante (Partners in Health). The trick with Farmer is that, in addition to being over-the-top dedicated to his work (the guy is barely human, I tell you), he set up Zanmi Lasante in partnership with Haitians. According to him, they mostly run the place (though Kidder shows us that Farmer's alien-like ability to operate on no sleep or food and his willingness to steal medical supplies from Harvard is also key).

Zanmi Lasante is outside Port-au-Prince and so is still standing and is one of the few operating hospitals/medical centers that is able to offer aid. I also trust that they are doing so in a way that will bring the most help to the most people because they've just been there for so long. And they're Haitians.

So, that's my plug. I've never been to Haiti, I'm not an aid expert, and make no claim to this being the right story. But it's a story that eases my heart a bit, knowing that there is that oasis, Zanmi Lasante, and its people, working in the destruction.

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