Imagine a country in which a child is 10 times more likely to die before reaching five years of age than a child in the United States, a country where the overall life expectancy is 57 years old, nearly 20 years less than in your own country — a country where human beings sometimes eat dirt pies for nourishment.
And imagine finally that something can be done to resolve the tragedy facing the majority of the 9 million people who live in a nation not far south of the United States. That country is Haiti.
Haiti comes to the news pages when there is some new spot event, like the sorry case of a boat overloaded with 200 migrants capsized in the Caribbean this week, throwing a number of people to their deaths. But the nightmare of desperation never ends for Haitians, wracked by violence, hunger, fear and deprivation across generations.
Forget for the moment that U.S. policymakers looked the other way during decades of kleptocracy by the Duvalier family in Haiti during the 20th century; or that the Bush administration essentially tricked the elected president of the country, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, out of the country in 2004; and that thereafter, the United States has cared little and thought less about Haitians, whose lives were made even worse last year after the punishing hurricane season.
Change could come in the form of a new commitment to attacking the cycle of misery. The first signal was the appointment of former President Bill Clinton as the United Nations special envoy to Haiti. His role is intended to raise awareness of the problem and he has already won more than $300 million in pledges for international aid to Haiti. That’s not enough, not by a fraction.
Significant change could come if Dr. Paul Farmer, as expected and hoped, is named the new administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which happens to exist on the flow chart under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Farmer has been in the running for the job for months now, with no announcement.
He is the visionary co-founder of Partners in Health and established a free health clinic in Haiti 20 years ago, treating the dire problems of disease and nutrition among Haiti’s impoverished majority. He has now extended his formula of consciousness-raising and local-based problem solving to Rwanda and Malawi. Partners in Health looks beyond individual health care to sustainable ecology and infrastructure. And the organization is careful to work with local governments, rather than dictating solutions on high.
Farmer’s inspiring mission was the subject of Tracy Kidder’s 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.
It could be that the administration doesn’t want another high-profile issue on the front burner. Farmer, meanwhile, might not want to be dragged down by government bureaucracy. Whether or not he gets the job, his commitment inspires people to move mountains –- and the need in Haiti and other countries requires new thinking and global commitment to change. We are all diminished by suffering of such a scale that goes along chronically, untreated and ignored.
– Peter Eisner
For more Worldfocus coverage of Haiti, visit our extended coverage page: Haiti’s Poor.