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Sean Penn on 1st Anniversary of Quake: 'Haiti Cannot Wait Any Longer'

4 years ago
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A prominent group of humanitarian activists gathered on Monday at The Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank, for a discussion on recovery efforts in Haiti one year after a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake decimated the small island nation and its capital city, Port-au-Prince. The speakers addressed many of Haiti's most pressing crises, which now include a deadly epidemic of cholera, routine sexual violence against women and girls living in refugee camps, and a national infrastructure that remains largely in shambles.

Sean Penn, the Academy Award-winning actor who runs a 55,000-person tent camp outside Port-au-Prince, opened the event, taking aim in his remarks at gridlock among nations distributing aid money to earthquake relief efforts. In March, the United States, along with 47 other nations and international partnerships, pledged $9.9 billion to help rebuild Haiti, $2.1 billion of which was designated for use in 2010. According to the U.N., however, only $1.2 billion in pledge money was dispensed this past year.

"How would it be if we were to do a redo of the donors conference, with caveats?" Penn asked. "A conference which would allow the Haitian government and the Haitian people to hold donor nations' feet to the fire by requiring not cash -- but tangible components of reconstruction?"

All of the speakers -- who included Paul Weisenfeld, a senior official at USAID, the foreign aid arm of the U.S. government, and Claude Jeudy, the national director of Habitat for Humanity in Haiti -- emphasized the need for significantly stronger efforts to rebuild the Haitian infrastructure, which was notoriously tenuous even before the earthquake in 2010. Haiti still lacks building codes, and many residences before the earthquake were constructed without adequate foundations -- or into the sides of hills vulnerable to mudslides.

Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said in July that rebuilding efforts stalled in early 2010 as a result of the government's decision to use the majority of its resources for hurricane preparation.

The speakers also addressed the country's growing epidemic of cholera, the deadly diarrheal disease, which began in October and has since claimed the lives of at least 1,344 people, according to the Haitian government. "In an environment without proper public infrastructure for water, it spreads like wildfire," Weisenfeld said. "And Haiti is unfortunately a terrible place when you add cholera into the mix."

But despite the continued suffering from the cholera outbreak, Weisenfeld explained that there is some cause for optimism in the fight against communicable diseases in the country. "We can look back and think that some things did go right," he said, citing the successful distribution of over 800,000 mosquito nets, which help prevent the spread of malaria.

More than one million people still live in refugee camps throughout Haiti. In the sprawling tent cities outside of Port-au-Prince, living conditions are often unsanitary and dangerous. Cholera remains an ominous concern in the camps, where crowded living areas and contaminated food and water facilitate the spread of the disease. On Wednesday, Amnesty International released a report indicating that hundreds of women and girls had been raped in the camps, which gangs terrorize at night armed with razor blades and knives.

"After they left, I didn't do anything," a woman named Suzie, who had been raped in one of the camps, said in the report. "I didn't have any reaction. Women victims of rape should go to hospital, but I didn't because I didn't have any money... I don't know where there is a clinic offering treatment for victims of violence."

For the crisis in Haiti to improve, Penn explained, the rest of the world must cast conventional wisdom aside.

"Here is a cliché that you often hear in the N.G.O. community: 'Don't give them fish. Teach them to fish,'" Penn said. "Of course we have to support Haiti with training... but that can also can be the smokescreen that leaves hundreds of thousands in unsanitary camps through next year's hurricane season.

"Haiti cannot wait any longer," Penn continued, nearing the end of his remarks. "We cannot let the sense of optimism... that Haiti can recover and transform into a self-sustaining nation fade out of impatience, frustration or complacency."
Filed Under: International

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