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Diplomacy in Action

One Month Later, Haiti's Humanitarian Crisis Remains


Op-Ed
Huffington Post Op-Ed by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah
Washington, DC
February 12, 2010

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One month ago, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti.

In the hours that followed, President Obama gathered his senior leadership and gave a clear directive: respond quickly and overcome any obstacles that stand in the way. We used the lessons we learned from past disasters, and we did not allow red tape to be an excuse for inaction. With the unparalleled mobility of assets of the U.S. military to support them, countless civilian government agencies began working around the clock through USAID, with the United Nations and in partnership with the Government of Haiti and more than 400 non-governmental organizations to reach as many people as humanly possible with food, water, shelter, and medical help.

The President's mandate has not been easy to fulfill and Haiti 's humanitarian crisis is far from over. The devastation wreaked by the earthquake is horrific. What infrastructure existed before the earthquake has been badly damaged -- roads, ports and power grids were either buried or destroyed. The Government of Haiti's capacity, in terms of both human resources and physical infrastructure, cannot be rebuilt over night. Their losses are too great, but in spite of the circumstances they face, Haitians have taken the lead in determining the future of their nation. The greatest loss, the human toll of this disaster, will never leave the memories of the families and aid workers who have struggled to save them.

Our primary objective in those early days was to save as many lives as we could. Search and rescue teams from throughout the U.S. were on the ground within 24 hours, working with the Government of Haiti and international search and rescue teams that were trained by USAID. More than 130 lives were saved, ranging from a 3-week-old baby to an 84-year-old woman. It did not matter if Americans were rescuing Haitians, or French rescuers were saving Americans -- we were all on the same team.

This spirit of cooperation continues. The Government of Haiti sets the priorities. Partners answer their call, helping to meet not only the urgent need, but also to support Haiti 's long-term development. U.S. medical teams alone have treated more than 30,000 injured. Local water distribution businesses -- the traditional means by which Haitians receive water -- were recruited immediately to help sustain the population. Thousands of Haitians are employed in jobs programs to help clear rubble and build shelter for displaced families.

Despite the human challenges, we are working with the Haitian people and their leaders to focus on tomorrow, even as we face enormous challenges. Efficient operations at food distribution points are allowing us to feed more people on a regular basis, but still, too many go hungry. Together with our international partners, we are providing Haitians with the tools and materials to construct temporary shelters to protect them in the rainy season, but Haiti's already fragile natural environment is now even more vulnerable to the rains, floods and hurricanes. The ability to care for those recovering from injury is increasing, and monitoring for potential for outbreak of disease is constant; but even in the best of conditions, temporary settlements make the public health threat very real.

With this sense of urgency, the United States will continue to work tirelessly with Haiti and our international partners to identify where each country can best contribute, in order to to alleviate this humanitarian crisis and lay the foundation for future Haitian development that reduces the impact such disasters have on Haiti's population. American citizens echoed this commitment. Nearly half of all American families have donated to the Haiti relief effort through efforts such as the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund.

It may be tempting to think that building back better is impossible. We cannot fool ourselves about the magnitude of the challenges. Nonetheless, when we have the power to prevent hunger and disease from robbing a generation of children of their capacity to live up to their potential through basic nutrition and immunization programs, we cannot stand idly by. When American workers can help train Haitian construction firms how to build safe homes, the opportunities are too great to ignore.

The Haitian spirit is brave and resilient. When I walked through a settlement in Port-au-Prince of families that had lost everything, I spotted 12 volt batteries and power strips people had found to keep their cell phones charged. Their priority was to reach out to family and friends and offer what little help they could provide. This spirit is what we are there to support. Together with our international and non-governmental partners, we can help Haiti regain the path towards a better future. Long after television cameras leave, American support will remain. It stands as a promise to the people of Haiti -- and to the nations of the world -- that we will stand by our friends.



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