Monday, January 9, 2012


Today is the second anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. I remember seeing the front page of the Washington Post, which published a picture of a schoolgirl in a white blouse and blue dress, slumped over her desk under the weight of a concrete slab that had been the roof of her classroom. In that week's editorial page, someone wrote in to protest that the picture had been too graphic.

Of all of the countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti was probably the least equipped to deal with a natural disaster of this magnitude. Overloaded or insufficient infrastructure, a pre-existing dearth of medical facilities, cement buildings that pancaked at the first tremor, and deforested hills that triggered mudslides all contributed to the horrifically high death toll.

But as news of the earthquake broke, aid and personnel began pouring into Haiti. Why then was the response so chaotic and disorganized, and why, twenty-four months later, are thousands of Haitians still living in tents?

Dr. Paul Farmer, one of the founders of Partners in Health, attempts to untangle the labyrinthine maze of aid organizations and funding sources in Haiti After the Earthquake.. Dr. Farmer's Partners in Health began in Cange (central Haiti) and now operates in several countries, including Lesotho, Malawi, and Rwanda.

It is clear from Farmer's introduction that he holds Haiti and its citizens in the highest esteem, and Haiti After the Earthquake takes a refreshingly clear-eyed view of the issues in Haiti. Instead of calling for more aid or NGOs, Farmer instead calls for greater autonomy for Haiti's government and public sector, and blames the well-intentioned flood of humanitarian aid for further weakening Haiti's public sector, which is crucial for any long term or sustainable improvement in Haiti's infrastructure.

While the convergence of aid groups, groups from the United Nations, and the appearance of the U.S.'s Comfort hospital ship and its crew certainly saved lives, Dr. Farmer details the discouragingly disorganized, politicized, and fragmented relief efforts that unfolded in the weeks after the earthquake. Haiti After the Earthquake does an excellent job of explaining the answer to what talking heads started asking during the evening news cycle: if so much aid was pouring in, where was it going and why weren't things being repaired faster?

The answer, of course, isn't simple, ranging from the unintended consequences of USG relief laws to the nascent turf wars that started budding between NGOs to the simple reality of trying to function within a system that, at the best of times, didn't work.

Haiti After the Earthquake also humanizes the victims of the earthquake, from the families of the heroic medical staff of Haiti's hospitals who returned to work, unpaid, often homeless, unfed, without news of their families and friends, and continued their work of saving lives.

Haiti After the Earthquake includes a section, "Other Voices," written by Haitians and members of the Haitian diaspora, including Dr. Farmer's wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer. "Other Voices" is a welcome addition to Haiti After the Earthquake, presenting the Haitian perspective that is so often missing in the narrative surrounding the earthquake.

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