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[Caryl Stern] Don’t stop providing aid to children in Haiti

If you’ve never seen a child die, consider yourself very lucky. A few years ago I sat with a 19-year-old mother watching her daughter in a fast, agonized decline. The small hospital lacked the needed medicines to help. For hours the child battled for every single breath, then lost the fight. Suddenly, she was limp, gray ... gone. All hope and possibility for an entire life suspended in that last, unfinished breath.

As the one-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake looms, so does the inevitable question: Should we continue to provide aid to a country that cannot seem to shake political turmoil and bad news?

But this is beside the point. The only real question right now is: What would happen if we did stop helping Haiti’s people? The answer is very simple. Children would become sick, and children would die.

I’m certainly not saying there shouldn’t be an examination of whether enough ― or the right kind of ― aid is being deployed. Aid organizations must take a long hard look at what works and what doesn’t ― build on successes and learn from mistakes. There have been plenty of both in Haiti.

But there has also been significant progress. As an advocate for children, my job would be easier if there were a way to show each child who has been saved by the work in Haiti. If only I had a photo album the size of a conference table filled with snapshots of kids who are playing, running, making faces for the camera. I could flip through it and say, “Here’s a boy who would have succumbed to disease, this girl would have died of dehydration, and here are 20,000 more ...”

But we tend to discuss Haiti as if it’s some abstract entity ― a small dot on a world map. I’ve heard people say, “That’s it, I’m not giving any more money to Haiti,” as though the country itself raises one massive hand and pockets the funds. In fact, donations are crucial to programs that are, every single day, saving the lives of human beings. Clean drinking water, medicines, immunizations, nutrition, orphanage support. Millions of Haitians have received such lifesaving interventions in the last year, thanks in large part to the generosity of the American people. Halting these interventions would be as unthinkable as quietly shutting off life support to an accident victim who has an excellent chance of pulling through, but no health insurance.

On a recent trip to Haiti, I visited a newly built school where I was amazed to see a class of girls file in wearing uniforms, their white shirts as crisp and bright as any Wall Street banker’s. When I asked the students how many of them still lived in tents, half the girls raised their hands. I asked how many walked an hour or more to get to the school ― again, more than half the hands went up.

A girl who had raised her hand to both questions explained that she needed to be in school ― school was bringing a sense of normality back to her life. Like so many children I’ve met in Haiti, she is passionate about her education so she can help both herself and her country in the future.

But that uniform ― how did she manage to keep it so pressed and clean? She told me that every day after the long walk back to her tent, she washes the shirt in her bucket, hand-wrings it dry, flattens and folds it “just so,” and places it beneath the mattress of her cot so the weight of her body ensures it will be creaseless the next day.

So much had been taken from that girl by the earthquake. Home, family, possessions. Here she was, getting on with her life with a determination, dignity and hope that would be remarkable but for the fact that, in Haiti, it is not. If there is an unspoken compact between those who give aid and those who receive it, Haiti’s children are certainly keeping up their end of the bargain. Those children won’t give up. How could we possibly consider doing so?

By Caryl Stern

Caryl Stern is president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, 125 Maiden Lane, New York, N.Y. 10038; website: www.unicefusa.org. ― Ed.

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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