What Haiti Requires of Us

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 27, 2010.
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And now Haiti.

The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 — an earthquake under the ocean, generating a tidal wave that in some places was a hundred feet high — left 226,000 dead. In Haiti, it is too soon to know the final tally; too many bodies are still buried under the rubble. Current estimates are in the 200,000-300,000 range.

The flood of gifts to agencies devoted to medical care, food, shelter and all the rest of what’s so urgently required is inspiring. One survey finds that 45% of Americans have made cash contributions to one or another of the nonprofit agencies engaged in Haiti, with over half those contributions flowing to the American Red Cross. The total contributed so far is an impressive half-billion dollars, about the same as was raised in private donations after the tsunami.

Many Jewish organizations, as might be expected, have been responsive, some simply by collecting gifts and forwarding them to one of the agencies that has a presence and a track record in Haiti, a few using the funds to support their own ongoing programs in Haiti.

Thus, for example, money raised by synagogues and federations — people, it seems, prefer dealing with familiar institutions — is being channeled to on-the ground aid efforts (including helping cover the costs of the much-noted and deservedly praised Israeli field hospital operations), while money raised by the American Jewish World Service goes directly into the work of one of the 10 Haitian agencies with which AJWS has been working since 1999. We’re told there are as many as 10,000 non-governmental organizations in Haiti; clearly, charitable dollars should be targeted to or through organizations with a proven track record, ideally although not necessarily with on-the-ground experience in disaster relief.

When it comes to “a proven track record,” no organization working in Haiti has accomplished more or has more elaborate experience to draw on than Partners in Health, a Boston-based organization that was founded in 1987 to provide free medical care to poor people. It began its work in Haiti; more recently, it has begun working in Rwanda, in Lesotho and in Malawi, as also in Russia and Peru. Its calling card is its programs for dealing with drug-resistant tuberculosis and with AIDS, and it has been remarkably successful in those efforts. Its programs and protocols — including the training of community health workers — are copied all over the world. And by now it has branched into more comprehensive care. Partners in Health has 11,000 employees, of whom 4,000 are Haitians — doctors, nurses, community health workers.

Perhaps you’ve read Tracy Kidder’s 2003 book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World.” Farmer, a physician who is also a Ph.D. in anthropology, is perhaps best understood as a “liberation physician,” of a piece with the liberation theologians who once seemed poised to dominate Catholic theology and practice in much of Latin America. The heart of their message was and remains that the church has an affirmative obligation to work against the social, political and material oppression that is the lot of the poor. (The most vehement and effective critic of liberation theology was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who asserted that “it constitutes a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church.” Ratzinger is now better known as Pope Benedict XVI.) The more modest version — a basic tenet of Catholic understanding since at least 1891 — is that, as the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, explained it, “the poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor.” Or, as the Catholic theologian Charles E. Curran once put it, “One can have magnificent liturgy, great preaching, and a marvelous internal community life, but without a social mission one does not have church or the gospel…. If the church does not become involved in social transformation, it has betrayed the gospel and its own redemptive mission.”

That, it seems to me, is of a piece with what Dr. Farmer and his associates believe and practice — as do, I hasten to add, Ruth Messinger and the wonderful people of American Jewish World Service. They and others on the ground will do what they can to soften the consequences of the awesome disaster. The question that remains, the question that haunts, is how long the rest of us will stay engaged.

For absent sustained engagement and continuing commitment to Haiti’s rebirth, we confirm the terrible descriptor: We are no more than voyeuristic philanthropists, in for the thrill, for the opportunity to lick the edges of virtue, and then on either to another long bout of indolence and indifference or, if we get lucky, to the next engrossing hurricane/flood/fire/earthquake.

It has ever been thus. The task that now so urgently beckons is to change the human rules, to go beyond a comforting shiva call on the people of Haiti. It is not etched in stone that in the face of horrific disaster, our attention span is limited, must suffer a deficit disorder, any more than it is written that the Haitians are doomed eternally to remain among the most damnés de la terre, the wretched of the earth. It is no easy task to build something noble from the ruins, ruins both natural and man-made, but that is what it means to pursue justice.

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