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Helping Haiti Help Itself—A Commentary by Aaron Zelinsky ’10 and Jeffrey Kahn ’10

The following commentary was posted on The Huffington Post on January 17, 2010.

Helping Haiti Help Itself
By Aaron Zelinsky ’10 and Jeffrey Kahn ’10

Port-au-Prince lies in ruins, and the world works alongside the Haitian people to bind up Haiti's wounds. International aid flows slowly onto battered runways and over scarred roads. In time, Haiti will move from triaging its wounded to rebuilding its infrastructure, and the debate over how to make foreign aid effective will begin anew.

Right now, many great organizations are responding on the ground in Haiti, but one stands apart. Partners In Health, a medical organization which has been working in Haiti for nearly thirty years, is responding effectively and efficiently. Moreover, PIH is a model for effective future aid to Haiti and other nations.

The PIH paradigm rests on two principles: first, building local infrastructure, institutions, and knowledge in partnership with local organizations and local governments to meet local problems; second, ensuring the highest-quality care even in the poorest areas.

At its core, the PIH paradigm is age-old. The 12th Century philosopher-physician, Moses Maimonides, captured this paradigm when he proclaimed that the highest form of giving is "to strengthen one's hand until he need no longer be dependent upon another." The old proverb, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime" echoes the same philosophy: creating local capacity informed by local knowledge is the most effective form of assistance.

PIH embodies these principles in all that it does. PIH's partner project in Haiti, Zanmi Lasante, is staffed by hundreds of Haitian doctors, nurses, and nursing assistants. In addition to their medical expertise, these medical professionals have deep local knowledge. They speak the language. They know the culture. And they have a longstanding relationship with local governmental agencies, with whom they have partnered for years.

Not only was PIH's hundreds-strong medical staff on the ground and ready to act in the immediate aftermath of the quake, but their local knowledge allows them to effectively coordinate the strategic disbursal of medical relief coming in from the outside. The World Health Organization has designated the PIH/Zanmi Lasante team to direct efforts at the public hospital in Port-au-Prince, recognizing the importance of their deep understanding of local institutions and local needs.

Despite these successes, PIH faces a difficult challenge. Right now, hundreds of PIH's Haitian doctors, nurses, and nursing assistants are laboring round-the-clock in collaboration with medical personnel flowing into the country from abroad. Operating field hospitals in Port-au-Prince and manning their rural hospitals and clinics as the wounded flee the capital, PIH needs the financial resources to keep the medical supplies flowing. Without cash donations, PIH cannot sustain these efforts during this most crucial phase of the relief effort.

While PIH's need for donations is immediate, investing in PIH is also good for Haiti's long term needs. For almost thirty years, PIH has been revolutionizing health interventions in Haiti and elsewhere in the poorer world, transforming global Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS policy and creating effective models for future development.

PIH will continue to be effective in Haiti once the immediate disaster has ended. Although rebuilding Haiti will take time, the task must be guided by humane and effective paradigms. PIH's model provides such a paradigm. PIH's emphasis on local-capacity building, public-private partnerships that strengthen government institutions, and commitment to cost-effective, yet high quality services is a model for what Haiti needs now and in the future.

For millennia, society has grappled with how best to help those most in need. As Partners In Health shows, the most effective way is, as always, to help others to help themselves. PIH, and the PIH paradigm, deserve our support now and in the years to come.

Jeffrey Kahn is a past employee of Partners In Health. This post was neither solicited nor authorized by PIH.