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  1. Health

In Haiti, Paul Farmer's charity Partners in Health makes a difference

Dr. Paul Farmer talks to other dignitaries before the cornerstone ceremony in 2010 for the teaching hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti.
Published Jan. 9, 2013

I don't blame anyone who has tuned out anniversary coverage of the catastrophic earthquake that destroyed large parts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010.

I don't even hold it against media outlets that there really hasn't been much coverage, at least so far.

That's because the one report I have read — by Deborah Sontag of the New York Times (tinyurl.com/dxchly3) — doesn't really read like a news story, but like a long, exhaustively researched version of the same old story.

Of the billions of dollars nations and aid agencies pledged for earthquake recovery, too much still sits in bank accounts or exists only as budgetary line items.

Too many earthquake victims still live under tarps. Too few live in solid homes. Very little has been done to bring lasting benefit to the people of Haiti.

It's enough to make a travesty of former President Bill Clinton's famous pledge to "build back better."

It's enough to make anyone cynical about the possibility that charity can help create a strong and independent country.

That's why you might want to click on pih.org, the website of Partners in Health, co-founded by Hernando High School grad — and 2008 Great Brooksvillian — Paul Farmer.

Its main post-earthquake project, a new teaching hospital in Mirebalais, 38 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, was completed in October.

All the things that, according to the Times, have gone wrong with the recovery? In a lot of cases, it seems to me, Partners got them right.

Too much money has been spent — in some cases, out of necessity — on temporary fixes, Sontag wrote.

The hospital in Mirebalais, on the other hand, will bring the following, long-term benefits: 300 beds for admitted patients, treatment rooms to handle as many as 500 outpatients per day, employment for about 1,000 people, including 175 community health care workers, and facilities to train future generations of doctors and nurses.

Overall, the Times story said, too much of the recovery money, and too many of the jobs, have been claimed by foreign aid workers; too much of the planning has excluded the Haitian government.

The American contractor who built the Partners hospital, meanwhile, volunteered his services and hired hundreds of paid Haitian construction workers. The expansion of the project — originally imagined as a small regional facility — was requested by the Haitian government. The government will be an equal partner in its operation for the first few years and eventually run it as a national hospital. All but a few of the previously mentioned long-term jobs — including for doctors and nurses — will go to Haitians.

Finally, Sontag tracked the depressing sums that had gone to administration rather than to directly help the earthquake victims. Partners' 2011 tax return, by contrast, shows that about 94 percent of the money it raised was poured into its central mission.

When the hospital was planned, there was a lot of emphasis on creating jobs and institutions outside of congested, chaotic Port-au-Prince, and there is now considerable criticism that much of the rebuilding money has been spent in areas that didn't need rebuilding, at least not because of the earthquake. The Mirebalais hospital has been held out as a prime example of this pattern.

And because of operations money yet to be released from a central recovery fund, the hospital won't be up and running for several more months.

So, yes, I guess you could include it in the long list of unkept post-earthquake promises.

But that's not the way it looks to me when I go to the website and see a modern, fully equipped hospital in a place where a little more than two years ago I saw workers lay a cornerstone in a muddy construction site.

I see a building that will do a huge amount for this community and country, including build pride and independence.

I see a structure that will — or should — shut the mouth of any cynic.

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