After the earthquake in Haiti, the international community must act, not look away | Opinion

·4 min read

On Aug. 14, 2021, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti’s Southern Peninsula, destroying hundreds of buildings and killing more than 2,000 people. Coming just over a decade after the devastating 2010 earthquake, the mid-August catastrophe overwhelmed hospitals, rendered roads impassable, reduced schools, churches and businesses to rubble, and left thousands homeless and in search of loved ones.

Unlike the outpouring of support in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, the repeated destruction — along with persistent political unrest and violence — has led many to question the benefit of continued investment in Haiti. More than two months later, however — as Haitian asylum seekers continue to arrive at the U.S. border — it is more critical than ever for the world to directly address the deep inequities in Haiti.

Providing sustainable, effective support to the Haitian people, in partnership with local communities and government, and with an understanding of local context, is not only possible, it’s imperative — and examples of how to do so successfully already exist.

Critical care facilities

It starts with infrastructure — both physical and human. Media coverage in the aftermath of the August earthquake was dominated by images of utter destruction, but St. Boniface Hospital — a large referral hospital located on Haiti’s Southern Peninsula — and other buildings built to international earthquake resistant standards remained structurally sound and were vital to treating those injured in the earthquake.

Eleven years ago, the absence of critical care facilities was glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. St. Boniface was a small community clinic, and large tertiary care hospitals like Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais (HUM), constructed by Partners in Health (PIH) and Build Health International (BHI), didn’t exist. In the years since, organizations committed to structural change — like BHI, PIH and Health Equity International (HEI) — have partnered with local communities to build more resilient infrastructure, train local work forces and develop strong health systems that both improve long-term health outcomes and aid in the response to acute crises.

Following the most recent disaster, these organizations mobilized their local networks and collaborated with dozens of international partners — including World Hope International, Airlink, CORE, MSF, Hope for Haiti, Sol Relief and World Central Kitchen — to move tons of critical medical supplies and equipment, perform assessments on vital infrastructure and deliver critical care and aid to those in need. Crucially, in contrast to the 2010 earthquake and the response to Hurricane Matthew in 2016, these efforts were also streamlined and coordinated with the government of Haiti.

Robust, continued investment is key, but the strength and durability of St. Boniface Hospital, HUM and over 60 BHI projects in Haiti is a result of much more than just the amount of resources available; it’s rooted in how those resources are deployed.

International actors in Haiti must understand the unique conditions to source materials and embrace construction techniques that are earthquake resistant, and that can stand up to the evolving severe climate and weather changes in the region.

Resources must be targeted to create pipelines of opportunity for Haitian engineers, electricians and technicians to work alongside international experts and learn critical skills. They must be provided tools and support to put those skills to work building and maintaining critical infrastructure.

Haitian-led medical response

Likewise, facilities can and should be designed to train Haitian physicians, nurses and biomedical technicians who can provide critical care while simultaneously building trust within local communities. Unlike the 2010 earthquake, the medical response to the recent earthquake was led almost entirely by Haitian medical professionals, many of whom were trained at HUM.

International actors, too, must work closely with one another and the Haitian government, providing complementary skills and expertise, rather than pursuing overlapping, contradictory efforts, which has tragically become all too commonplace. Contrary to the narrative that all international aid has been ineffective in Haiti, projects like HUM and the St. Boniface expansion have had immense, positive impact. With appropriate funding levels delivered to the right organizations, and with participation and concurrence by the government of Haiti, much more progress can be made.

Right now, the Haitian people need the international community to stand alongside them in the right way — not single-handedly designing and dictating disaster response and long-term development. Rather, development actors must work directly with Haitians most proximate to the challenges, including the Haitian government, to design sustainable infrastructure and effectively deliver resources to ensure long-term, high-quality, sustainable care and healing.

Jim Ansara is the co-founder and director of Build Health International.

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