Kent Annan is the Florida-based co-director of Haiti Partners, a nonprofit focused on grassroots education and leadership development. Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter talked to Annan by phone on Jan. 14, two days after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti.
Sojourners: Human actions—including a long history of exploitation of Haiti by other nations—clearly made the impact of the earthquake much worse. What can be done so that Haiti is less vulnerable to natural and other disasters?
Kent Annan: Haiti needs continued investment in the positive development work that was happening before the earthquake, which will hopefully intensify afterwards: investment in education—only one out of every two children attends school. Investment in job creation. Investment in the environment—deforestation worsens natural disasters; improving the topsoil so that people’s crops can produce more food. Help to build up the overall resources of the country so the government has more resources to respond in a situation like this. The government only manages to fund public elementary schools for about 20 percent of the children, so how would it have the means to deal with this disaster? When 80 percent of Haitians are living on less than $2 a day, barely surviving anything, let alone an earthquake of this magnitude, is too much to bear.
How can people help, both now and in the future?
Link up with a good organization that has experience in Haiti, is working there already, and can connect people into a good, solid way of investing. Obviously, money is a huge help, because it gives organizations the flexibility to respond to changing needs. In the coming days and weeks more specifics about what expertise, resources, and supplies are needed will become clear.
People need to understand that there was a silent crisis long before this earthquake. When the quake fades from the news in the coming weeks, it’s going to be an even worse crisis, which will go on for months and years. We need to stand with people in Haiti, not to swoop in and save them, but to find really productive ways to partner with them.
Give in response to disasters like these, but also realize that these crises aren’t complete accidents. There’s a natural disaster that’s an accident, but the vulnerability of the people isn’t an accident. So it’s important for people to invest wisely to help others in the day-to-day, when a place is no longer in the headlines.
Your book, Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle, describes the deep relationships you and your wife developed with people in Haiti. How does that experience give you hope?
There’s a story in the book about riding on a crowded truck shortly after Hurricane Jeanne caused mass fatalities in the city of Gonaïves from flooding. [See excerpt, page 43.] It became clear that one young man had somehow just escaped from there. Everybody on the back of that truck, people living on the edge of survival themselves, gave to help this guy. It felt like holy ground to be there, to see that. Jesus’ story of the widow with the mite challenges us on how we give in a moment like this, how we give day to day.
When Haitians in awful situations refuse to give up hope against all the odds, as I saw there in daily life and in other emergencies, then I don’t think we have any right to give up hope either.