Help Haitians Help Themselves

Bernadette - May 24 2012, 2:24 PM

Sean Penn is an angry man. Expletive-filled outbursts and scuffles with photographers and fans commonly show up in Internet searches of his name. He is without question one of the most explosive actors of his generation.

And one of the most committed to doing good.

His personal life is characterized by the same intensity he carries in his professional life, as shown by his recent rant, lashing out at celebrities, media and the aid world for abandoning Haiti, which suffered a catastrophic earthquake in January 2010.

In the days immediately following the temblor, media reported en masse on Haiti round the clock.

Celebrities mustered aid flights and media tours of the devastated communities in and around Port-au-Prince.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were quickly donated.

Then after a time, things went quiet -- Haiti fatigue people called it. Not Penn.

"The reason people get Haiti fatigue is that they never commit in the first place," Penn said Friday at a dinner at the Cannes Film Festival to support the country.

"People have to understand this is not about diving into the water.

You're going to have to swim."

It's not enough to just get your feet wet. This is a country where entire towns were flattened, neighborhoods destroyed.

Hundreds of thousands died in minutes.

Hundreds of thousands more were injured, disfigured, and more than one million evicted to the streets.

Two years later the situation is better, but not by much.

For Heifer International, which has worked in Haiti since 1999, Penn's lambaste struck a chord.

Recovery in Haiti is possible only through years-long commitments, much like Heifer makes in all communities and countries where we work. In Haiti, for example, Heifer International has worked with smallholder farmers to boost their nutrition, diets, income and opportunity since the late 1990s, and we have just launched a five-year effort to help another 20,250 rural households.

Aid and relief are necessary in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy or natural disaster -- people need food, water, medicines, but long-term investment, in and with the indigenous population -- the people of Haiti -- is required for full recovery.

Penn has demonstrated his commitment through his nonprofit, J/P Haitian Relief Organization, and the time he spends in country, the United States and elsewhere, marshaling resources for the people of Haiti.

He demonstrates the power of people by working with Haitians for the benefit of Haitians, not enlisting help from other countries and peoples.

Heifer International works like that, too. Hervil Cherubin, Heifer International's Haiti country director is Haitian born and Haitian committed.

He doesn't just administer programs, he helps create and plan them, with the needs of his people and his country in mind. Heifer's Rural Entrepreneurs for Agricultural Cooperation in Haiti (REACH), for example.

Penn, in Cannes, said, "Everyone wants to say, don't give them fish, teach them to fish. Well, there's no (expletive) fish."

In Haiti, Heifer International is literally teaching families to fish, with fish farming in Lake Peligre.

The fish these smallholder farers raise will provide needed protein and fish for sale, creating income and business opportunities.

We are also providing livestock and crop inputs for integrated farming, improved husbandry techniques and business training and market linkages through the establishment of goat and pig breeding centers.

These efforts are forecast to increase incomes, which average $50 per month, from 100 percent for livestock producers to 220 percent for breeding center owners -- most of them women.

Some 300 new full-time jobs -- for Haitians -- will be created, along with a network of 120 community animal health workers.

Paul Haggis, whose Artists for Peace and Justice (APJ) is helping in the recovery in Haiti, has echoed Penn, saying, "If you have given up hope, you haven't been to Haiti."

We've been there and we will continue to be there, in Haiti, where there is plenty of hope, but not enough help. Support Heifer in our REACH program, or support Penn's organization.

Out of sight out of mind is not an acceptable solution to the challenges Haiti has faced and will face for some years to come.

Pierre Ferrari is the president and CEO of Heifer International.

You can follow him on twitter at heiferceo.

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