Port-au-Prince- The gleaming white hospital appears out of nowhere in the bustle of this impoverished city in the Central Plateau of Haiti. It seems even more out of place when you consider what’s inside: 300 beds — more than All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. Six operating rooms. A neonatal intensive care unit. A CT scanner, the only one available to the public in Haiti. Most important, patients. More than 10,000 have seen clinicians since the hospital opened this spring.
It’s one of the few visible signs of progress since the 2010 earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince.
More than half of American households donated after the earthquake to help a poor country with bad luck. But for the most part, the grand plans of building back better have not materialized. The 1.5 million people living in tents after the earthquake are fewer, but many were forcibly evicted. A garment factory and a luxury hotel, both underwritten by aid, opened with fanfare. These milestones hardly amount to a resounding victory for the people of Haiti.
Against this disappointing effort, University Hospital stands out as a testament to how much can be accomplished in Haiti. It can teach us how to achieve rebuilding and development with effective aid that endures, and better deliver on the generosity of the American people.
The popular narrative would tell you the recovery fell short because Haiti is difficult, unstable, dangerous and corrupt. Just a few days after the quake, New York Times columnist David Brooks blamed Haiti’s trouble on “progress-resistant cultural influences.” It’s a facile explanation of a complex place, but a lot of people found it convincing.
My experience has led me to believe something else. I lived in Port-au-Prince for nine months and now work in Boston at Partners in Health, the global health nonprofit that built L’hopital Universitaire de Mirebalais under the guidance of Brooksville native Dr. Paul Farmer. In my view, the problem lay not with the Haitians but the aid industry that came to their rescue.
The earthquake recovery was largely composed of nonprofit organizations that are more eager to please donors than the people they purport to serve. Too often, they pay lip service to working with communities while largely ignoring them in designing their programs. Many of the so-called experts on alleviating poverty had little experience in Haiti and no plans to stay long term.