Choosing to Visit Haiti

by Evan Pye

In the last week of June I traveled to Haiti with an organization called Team Tassy. I had developed a very strong interest in the country after six months of reading about Haiti and writing research papers on global health issues in Haiti for school. In terms of books, I read Paul Farmer’s Haiti After the Earthquake, Jonathan Katz’ The Big Truck That Went By and To Repair the World, which is a collection of commencement speeches delivered by Paul Farmer. The speeches cover his philosophy on global health and his work building health systems for the poor in developing countries. I had also read Mountains Beyond Mountains, which is a book by Tracy Kidder about Paul Farmer and his organization Partners in Health. Paul Farmer and his work in Haiti has always inspired me, and he’s always served as a role model. Since my first global health class at USC as a freshman, I’ve heard his name and learned about his philosophy of quality health care as a human right. I even got to meet him when he gave a talk at USC. Regardless, I never felt compelled to visit or work in Haiti until the last semester of my graduate program in public health at USC.

Then I read some more of these books and worked on a very intensive research project for a class on global health and human rights involving the cholera outbreak that followed the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. I had never realized that Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere, nor that it was so close to the United States, nor that its history is so epic and rich. I was turned off by the fact that Haiti is often referred to as the “republic of NGOs.” If so many people are working there, then wouldn’t it be too crowded to make a difference. Or perhaps effective aid and development is just too hard there. Another influence that sparked my interest in Haiti was an interview I conducted with a global health professional for class who told me that nothing her organization did there seemed to stick. She had been very discouraged after working there. While I was in Haiti, I heard other stories of aid workers “burning out” after working there for a few years and never wanting to return.

So I had become fascinated with Haiti and it had another characteristic that drew me towards working there, or at least visiting for an exploratory trip. It is so geographically close to the United States that it would be much easier to work on a university-based program there than in a low-income country in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia. For students or staff working in Haiti versus the other side of the world, distances or shorter, air travel is cheaper, and help is relatively nearby in the case of an emergency. I had experienced a health emergency while leading a trip of 20 students in Uganda, and it was very complicated and scary. In short, Haiti needs as much help as many of the poorest countries on the other side of the world, but it also happens to be our neighbor.