May 7, 2010

Haiti: A Change in JDC's Modus Operandi

From JDC CEO, Steve Schwager

I share with you some startling but basic statistics about Haiti. Prior to the January earthquake, Haiti had a population of 10 million people, two million of whom lived in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. The quake killed 250,000 people, while another 600,000 fled the city and haven’t returned. Approximately 700,000 Haitians are now living in tents in Port-au-Prince, afraid or unable to return to their homes.

These statistics—and much more—pounded in my head as I sat in Haiti’s airport last Thursday afternoon waiting to return to the United States. JDC’s International Development Program Chair Trish Uhlmann, as well as Board members Alan Batkin and Dr. Michael Levinson, joined Will Recant, Mandie Winston, and me on this eye-opening Board mission. Throughout the three-day visit and while sitting in the airport, I kept reflecting on how JDC’s traditional approach to disaster relief was not going to work here, given the complete lack of a central government in Haiti. Normally we initiate pilot projects with local NGOs that later take the projects over with their own resources.

But in Haiti, almost four months after the earthquake, there is still rubble from collapsed buildings and garbage everywhere. Not once did we see any heavy equipment or garbage trucks trying to clear away the debris. Occasionally we saw some small groups of workers, paid $5 a day, breaking up concrete by using sledge hammers. These limited efforts are hardly making a dent in what is an enormous task.

Virtually every government ministry building, the presidential palace, and hundreds of schools that were filled with students collapsed. Fifteen percent of Haiti’s children went to public schools, while 85 percent attended private schools which charged tuition. Haiti had a literacy rate of 50 percent.

The government ordered those schools that were still intact to open in early April. Some did open, but others could not, either because the parents could no longer pay tuition due to job loss or because the students no longer lived near the school. Further, most of the 350,000 children living in tent camps had nowhere to learn because the camps are a far distance from the undamaged schools.

Talking about the camps—they are anywhere and everywhere there is open space. The main park of Port-au-Prince is now a tent city with thousands of residents. A center median on a road is now housing tents. Camps generally have no electricity, sparse latrines, and limited fresh water. It takes very little imagination to realize that they rapidly could become frightening sources of disease and discontent.

Medical care is urgently needed but chaotic at best. The earthquake victims have been treated free-of-charge at government and private clinics and by non-Haitian NGOs that have opened free clinics. The ironic result is that as time has passed, Haiti’s private clinics and private hospitals are going bankrupt and closing their doors, since they are no longer collecting the fees needed to pay their medical staff.

In spite of all these difficulties, life is returning to Port-au-Prince. Food and other goods are being sold by peddlers on the street and in the camps as well. Cars and motorcycles are everywhere and traffic is impossible. I wondered what traffic was like before the quake.

Into this horrible situation comes JDC. Our model has always been to create pilot programs which can be taken over by others and replicated throughout the country. We usually partner with the government or large local NGOs, but this simply will not happen in Haiti in the near future. Our role will be to create niche projects with local NGOs and fund them for as long as we have resources available.

So for now, we change our modus operandi. Irv and I recognize that our focus has to be helping individual Haitians in the hope they will take their learning and make a difference in the future. So what are we doing?

We have partnered with a Haitian NGO to run 10 schools in the tent cities in greater Port-au-Prince. That translates to 2,000 children receiving an education.

In partnership with another NGO, we are helping amputees resume a normal life. We sat with a number of people who lost arms or legs or both in the earthquake. They shared that when their limbs were amputated, they thought their lives were over. But with the help of physical therapy and the use of a prosthetic, they were smiling and talking about the future.

At a medical clinic we are operating with a third NGO, I watched infants receive critical treatment that literally means the difference between life and death for them.

The more than $3.5 million dollars allocated by JDC to various projects is having real human impact and is a meaningful beginning. The American Jewish community should know, and be proud, that on their behalf we are touching the lives of literally thousands of individual Haitians. Our approach, for now, is helping to rebuild Haiti one person at a time.

You may recall that after the earthquake hit, I wrote a column remarking that the world Jewish community owed a debt to the people of Haiti for their changed vote at the United Nations in 1947, which resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel. At dinner one evening on my recent trip, I was retelling the story of the debt the Jews owed the Haitian people. A local banker stopped me—and then finished the story. He shared with all of us that it was his father who served as Ambassador to the UN in 1947 and he was the one who cast the vote to give us a homeland. I was amazed—what a remarkable coincidence that we met in Haiti so many years later, and how appropriate that we were there to offer our assistance in the people of Haiti’s time of need. This was one of those times when I was so vividly reminded that what goes around truly does come around.

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