Haiti earthquake diary: Haitians chafe at foreign paternalism

Port-au-Prince's General Hospital is now kind of a mini United Nations with all the foreign medical volunteers who traveled here on their own dime to help out, but foreign bossiness is getting on some Haitian doctors' nerves.

Norwegian Red Cross/Reuters
Dr Arthur Halvorsen (front c.), nurse Tove Gunleiksrud, and midwife Aline Gagnon (r) treat a newborn baby at the General Hospital grounds in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 20, 2010. The field hospital was set up on the grounds of the earthquake-hit General Hospital, and is jointly run by the Norwegian and Canadian Red Cross Societies.

Monday, Jan. 25

The health situation has eased up a bit. Haitian and foreign doctors and nurses are ramping down the emergency operations at the General Hospital, which is actually the University Hospital as it’s the largest and only teaching hospital in the country.

It’s been transformed in the week since I was last there. It's now kind of a mini United Nations with all the foreign medical volunteers who traveled here on their own dime to help out.

The challenge is coordinating the effort, figuring out what treatment people need how best to follow up. With 90 percent of the government’s health infrastructure damaged, that’s no small feat.

Dr. Lassegue, the hospital's medical director, whom I spoke with the second night I was in the country, seems as calm as he did a week and a half ago, but this time he speaks a bit more forcefully about the need to rebuild all the surgical buildings – including the pediatric unit, the central lab and the nursing school, where more than 100 bodies are still buried. He knows the Haitian economy doesn’t have enough resources to even begin the process, but he wants to make sure that the Haitian government is included in the planning.

“Help us with our problem,” he says in a quiet but very authoritative voice. “It’s not your vision. We know we need help. I may follow your advice, but don’t tell me how to this or that. It’s still my country.”

This sentiment is cropping up here and there, and I find it understandable.

Some of the very qualified and well-intentioned internationalists here seem to have little patience for what they regard as Haitian incompetence. When they arrived in the midst of a chaotic situation they just started doing what they thought needed to be done.

I am hoping, I guess, that in this process of rebuilding Haiti, the “Haitian” way will be considered. I am not sure exactly what that means, but how Haitians do things is not always how Americans would do them.

The example of solar cookers come to mind. Even though deforestation is a huge problem in Haiti, because the trees have almost all been cut down to make charcoal, Haitians are not interested in the solar cookers that foreigners have been trying to get them to use as an alternative fuel source. Why? Because food cooked over a solar cooker has no taste. Without the charcoal flavor, they’re not interested. It would be like eating rice without salt. Or spaghetti without ketchup, two huge Haitian no-nos.

It's a small example, but there are many like it. And there will be many more as the world pours in money and advice for how to help Haiti rebuild. Here's to hoping that foreigners can help here while also respecting the Haitians and their way of doing things.

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