Alice Yang (NC) on Partners in Health

The pertinent question is: even as immediate rescue efforts wane and Haiti fades from the headlines, how will we ensure that this tragedy becomes a turning point for Haiti’s development – an opportunity to “build back better,” in President Clinton’s words – rather than just another setback for the hemisphere’s poorest country?

Since the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince on January 12, there has been a great deal of interest in how to best provide relief to Haiti. Amidst these conversations, there has been increased awareness of the role of Partners In Health (PIH) in these efforts. But who exactly is PIH, and what is the history behind its involvement in Haiti?

Partners In Health is a Harvard-affiliated international NGO working to bring modern medical care to those who need it most. PIH is best known for its pioneering work treating – and revolutionizing global policy on – AIDS and tuberculosis in impoverished settings. PIH has been working on the ground in Haiti for more than 20 years. In partnership with the Haitian Ministry of Health, PIH now oversees 5,000 employees and a network of public hospitals and clinics serving more than 1.2 million people. In Haiti and at all its project sites around the world, PIH explicitly addresses the root causes of disease and poverty, including lack of access to basic resources and services such as clean water and primary education. PIH also emphasizes training and capacity-building of local medical and managerial professionals; all projects are staffed and run by local nationals.

PIH’s visibility skyrocketed in 2003 with the publication of Pulitzer Prizewinner Tracy Kidder’s bestselling book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, about the organization’s co-founder Paul Farmer. A physician-anthropologist at Harvard, Paul was recently appointed to the position of United Nations Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti by Bill Clinton, who has taken a deep interest in PIH and in Haiti through the work of his foundation and in his role as the United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti.

What was your role at PIH? What inspires you about PIH’s vision?
I had the good fortune to work closely with Paul and with colleagues in Boston and Haiti for five years on a variety of research and programmatic efforts, ranging from conducting operational research on AIDS patient outcomes to coordinating potable water projects. During my time at PIH and even more so now, as a joint-degree student at HBS and HKS, I am particularly inspired by PIH’s ability to forge partnerships and leverage resources across the private, public and nonprofit sectors in each of the countries where it works, all with the goal of doing “whatever it takes” to improve the well-being of the patients and families it serves. At Harvard alone, PIH is closely allied with the medical school, the school of public health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and even HBS through a collaboration with Michael Porter focused on institutionalizing best practices for global health delivery.

How is PIH using donations to rebuild Haiti? How is this different from other humanitarian organizations providing relief in Haiti?
Because of PIH’s longstanding presence in Haiti, it has formed strong relationships at every level of local and global impact: rural villages, the Haitian government, foundations, pharmaceutical companies, medical schools and the international donor and policy community. This network of influence has been one of the organization’s great strengths in leading an effective response to the current crisis. Haiti is infamous for its excess of NGOs, missionary groups and other do-gooders. These fragmented efforts – however well intentioned – do not add up to sustained, systemic impact. I believe that PIH is effective because it has the ability to convene and coordinate the appropriate partners to address both immediate relief and long-term development – from securing shelter for displaced Haitians as the rainy season commences, to rebuilding the only public medical school and teaching hospital in the country, to convening donors and policymakers around the world who can help improve Haiti’s macroeconomic trajectory.

What is the current gap between need and funding for earthquake relief? How can HBS and the broader Harvard community effectively respond to Haiti’s needs?
The pertinent question is: even as immediate rescue efforts wane and Haiti fades from the headlines, how will we ensure that this tragedy becomes a turning point for Haiti’s development – an opportunity to “build back better,” in President Clinton’s words – rather than just another setback for the hemisphere’s poorest country?

Prior to the earthquake, Haiti’s prospects were looking up: through the office of the Special Envoy, donors and investors were lined up and ready to commit to large-scale business, education, health and energy projects. A sustainable rebuilding effort will focus on securing the resources and political will to improve governance and, crucially, strengthen the Haitian economy to provide for the needs of its people. At this moment, there is an unprecedented opportunity to build a more functional and beneficial aid structure that provides credible, long-term financial investment in Haiti. Restructuring foreign aid and forgiving Haiti’s crippling debts are essential to helping the country recover, as is job creation, reforestation and investments in infrastructure and agriculture.

This is a daunting list, and few organizations are as well-situated as PIH to help lead this effort. At the office, we used to joke about the Harvard-to-Haiti commute – a jarring contrast of power and privilege at one end, and poverty and privation at the other. There is now an opportunity for all of us to go on that journey. In a concerted show of support, many RC sections have selected PIH as one of the beneficiaries of their respective charity auctions. The recent Healthcare Conference and Social Enterprise Conference generously donated a portion of their proceeds to PIH. By supporting PIH, you are supporting not just another charity, but rather a proven organization with the relationships, leverage and commitment to effect change in a setting that has stymied so many. For more information or to make a donation, please visit

March 8, 2010
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