News Flash: Haiti Is on the Upswing

The country has made tremendous progress, but needs more support to defeat cholera and homelessness.
By SEAN PENN

Credit: J/P HRO Facebook

The rains have come to the Caribbean and hurricane season is upon us. But for the first time in four years, the nearly 60,000 people who sought refuge on the Petionville Club golf course after the earthquake are now under solid roofs in safer homes.

Our team at J/P Haitian Relief Organization continues to support these families as they rebuild resilient, sustainable and self-sufficient communities. Elsewhere in Haiti, Doctors Without Borders has brought health care to the most remote areas of the country, and the Haitian government has developed new building codes as part of a national housing policy.

Port-au-Prince, the capital city, has made remarkable progress. Nearly all of the 10 million cubic meters of rubble that buried the city have been cleared from the streets. More than 90% of the almost two million people left homeless have moved from tent camps to more permanent housing.

Haiti’s economy is among the fastest-growing in the Caribbean, as the government continues to make economic development a priority. Hundreds of kilometers of roads are now paved, thousands of homes built and tens of thousands of damaged homes repaired or retrofitted. Crime rates have dropped, and in May 2011, one political party transferred power to another peacefully after an election for the first time in modern history.

The people of Haiti have come a long way, which may shock those who watch the news. Headlines continue to spin Haiti as a dark, poverty-entrenched no-man’s-land. Even on the left, efforts at economic development have been portrayed as colonization by corporations or occupation by a foreign force.

Such cynicism sells papers and entices people to click, but at the cost of Haitian lives. This coverage scares away would-be investors, hindering economic development and reinforcing prejudices that Haiti is beyond help. And those who work every day to overcome the country’s challenges become gun-shy about discussing the real challenges, fearing that they will perpetuate the negative stereotypes and invite even more criticism.

This is tragic, because there are two urgent problems that need to be addressed: postearthquake homelessness and cholera.

Less than 10% of those initially displaced remain in camps, but that’s still almost 140,000 people—a big number that when taken out of context makes Haiti’s recovery so easy to criticize. Rather than cynicism and apathy, these families need help to leave the camps, find safe homes and return to a normal life.

At J/P HRO, we intend to ensure that each of these families makes it home. In partnership with the Haitian government and other organizations such as the International Organization of Migration and the Red Cross, we have helped develop a successful conditional cash transfer program. It gives displaced families the money they need to move out of the camps, while also injecting much-needed capital into the local economy. We’ve come so far, but flagging financial support is preventing the remaining families from returning home. They should not have to endure the deluge of another hurricane season homeless.

Haiti also is suffering the largest cholera epidemic in the world. Death from this bacterial infection is preventable, and with soap and safe water, infection is avoidable. Nevertheless, many in Haiti play down cholera for fear of scaring away tourists and deterring economic investment. Yet Kenya, India, Thailand and China also are fighting cholera. None of these countries is forced to bear the stigma Haiti endures.

To eradicate this disease, Haiti needs international support. We support a two-pronged approach, which Haiti’s government has already begun implementing. In the short-term, health education, vaccinations and treatment supplies can prevent further deaths. In the long-term, the country needs assistance to strengthen its health-care system and build better sanitation infrastructure. All organizations on the ground will have to coordinate their efforts with the government and international institutions. None of us can do it alone.

Cholera has already spread to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. If the epidemic is not stopped it will spread to the rest of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and beyond. The only thing we have to fear from cholera in Haiti is the tragic consequences of our own inaction.

Haiti has made tremendous progress after one of the greatest natural disasters in history, but there’s still a long road ahead. In collaboration with local and national government leaders, other international NGOs, U.N. agencies, donors and the community members themselves, the team at J/P HRO will continue to fulfill our mission of “saving lives and building sustainable programs with the Haitian people quickly and effectively.”

And with continued support and investment, our resourceful and inspiring neighbors in Haiti will overcome post-earthquake homelessness and cholera. With more help, they will soon be prospering on their gorgeous tropical island just 90 minutes from Miami.

Mr. Penn is an actor, director and the founder of J/P Haitian Relief Organization.

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