Natural disasters happen in all parts of the world, but when they occur in the developing world, the effects are particularly devastating as many in these countries and communities were already struggling to survive.
Such was the situation in Haiti following the massive 7.0 magnitude in 2010 that destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and created an instant humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands killed, the electricity grid destroyed and virtually no fresh water available.
Within hours of learning of the earthquake, our team, which had worked with children and other vulnerable populations in Haiti since 1999 started developing a response strategy focused on protecting children and supporting the population of internally displaced persons (IDPs), particularly those in the Central Plateau of the country.
To support the response, an additional team from Canada quickly assembled and within two days we landed in the Dominican Republic, directly beside Haiti. We immediately set out to buy food, fresh water, medications and other vital supplies that we knew would be in scarce supply once we crossed the border into Haiti.
"We immediately set out to buy food, fresh water, medications and other vital supplies..."
Other aid organizations also responded to provide emergency relief, but their aid was primarily focused within the capital of Port-au-Prince. After arriving in the capital just a few days after the quake, it was clear that our resources would be better directed to the landlocked Central Plateau region, tucked away in villages in the countryside, where no aid was being delivered at all.
In one relief camp in the region, the people I spoke to still had no food or water a full week after the earthquake.
When we arrived at the Free the Children school in Dos Palais, I was relieved to see the structure intact and I was overwhelmed to learn that the hundreds of children that attended the school were safe.
On the first anniversary of the earthquake, I invited my long-time friend, humanitarian and internationally acclaimed actress Mia Farrow to join me in returning to Haiti and tour the region with the support of our local team. Mia was on the ground in Haiti shortly after the disaster struck and she documented her experience through photography to be an advocate for the people of Haiti who were in dire need of help.
Canada's most-watched current affairs and documentary program, W5, followed Mia Farrow and me on our trip back to the island to see first-hand how the country was recovering.
Despite the progress we’d made on our own projects, it was disheartening to see that the rest of the country looked very much like it had in the days following the earthquake with little progress made on clean up and restoring basic infrastructure.
After years working overseas, I've come to believe that half the battle of ending poverty is working in the Global South. The other half is working in the Global North. We must address how we live our lives, our (unsustainable) consumption and our lack of understanding/interest in global development.
One of the most important parts of this trip was sharing with others what I came to believe was the true nature of sustainable development. This not only took place while in Haiti, but it helped inform the development of curriculum resources for schools in North America and helped us refine and focus our holistic, multi-pillar development model.
Beyond providing immediate support to Haitian communities, Free The Children made a long-term commitment to building new, hurricane and earthquake-proof schools, setting up permanent and pop-up health clinics in eight out of nine of Haiti’s regions, establishing programs to protect children orphaned by the earthquake, developing clean drinking water systems and creating long-term food security solutions for thousands of residents.
Haiti showed me that too often, well-intentioned relief organizations swoop in to try and put a band aid on things, but to provide meaningful and impactful change, a long-term commitment to sustainable development is required.