Partners in Health Co-Founder Urges World to Turn 'Disaster Into Opportunity' in Post-Quake Haiti

In his first public forum since a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in January, Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer challenged an overflow audience at Harvard Medical School to work with Haitians to overcome the impoverishment that made the post-quake suffering far worse than it needed to be, the Boston Globe reports.

Established in 1987, Boston-based PIH employs about four thousand people in Haiti — more than half of whom are community health workers who have built a network of services reaching villages across the Caribbean nation's Central Plateau. After the quake struck, PIH became the go-to international group for coordinating the emergency medical response, raising more than $52 million over the next few weeks for immediate and long-term relief efforts.

Research institutions and nongovernmental organizations working in Haiti before and after the quake have faced several hurdles. For example, Farmer said doctors are seeing tetanus cases that are "a reminder of the chronic failure to inoculate with an effective, safe vaccine that costs pennies." He also pointed to the crisis of clean water in a country that, a year before the quake, was declared the most "water-insecure" nation in the hemisphere.

The biggest challenge right now, added Farmer, is to get people working. To that end, some aid groups have implemented "cash-for-work" programs, which, collectively, have generated about 35,000 jobs — far short of the 500,000 paying jobs that are needed.

But while Farmer was reluctant to offer a prognosis on the country's future, he shared the thoughts of two young Haitians he met who answered an old man's plaint that "Haiti is finished." The young people, said Farmer, replied: "No, Haiti will never be finished. Haiti's is not a terminal illness."

James F. Smith. "Haiti Expert Shares a Vision at Harvard." Boston Globe 02/12/2010.