The international media and blogosphere were aghast when Marie Noel told her story to the world... "I know its not good for me," answered Noel when asked by an Associated Press reporter why she was eating and selling mud cookies - meals made from a mixture of dirt, water, salt and vegetable shortening. "I am hoping one day I will have enough food to eat."
Noel lives in Cite Soliel, a slum in Haiti -- the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti has long battled malnutrition where most nights 23 percent of its children under five go to bed hungry. Because of rising food prices, many in the crowded slums have resorted to eating this mud cookie mixture to fill their bellies and stave off hunger pains. Why are Marie's mud cookies relevant to us? And what does it mean to people who want to help; private donors, foundations, churches and international aid agencies?
If Marie Noel knows that this mixture, this mud cookie, this bacteria-filled pastry is not good for her then why does she eat it? The simple answer -- she has few options. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency recently declared a state of emergency in Haiti after the country's already struggling economy was ravaged by global price hikes for food and oil as well as crop damage from the 2007 hurricane season.
So, what can we do? Do we send donations to Haiti? Do we ship Marie Noel some real cookies, or more like government funded food aid distribution or canned goods? This has been the norm for "charity" as most know it, but does not provide long-term solutions for Marie Noel's family. In Haiti, and other post-conflict, embargo-affected nations, the good deeds performed by a few may resolve an immediate problem, but do not address the root causes of poverty. I believe this is a question of having the right strategy.
Holistic solutions, such as those proposed by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, have dramatically changed the global perspective on international aid -- casting aside top-down strategies for more pragmatic, community-driven and science-based approaches to development. This strategy puts emphasis on sustainability and self-reliance, while factoring in the importance of cultural competency, partnership building, and global awareness.
In 2002, I was fortunate enough to meet a group of doctors from the University of Miami who founded an organization named Project Medishare for Haiti. They invited me to join a medical trip to experience the Haitian countryside and culture. The first thing I noticed about Project Medishare was a different strategy; one fueled by the community with emphasis on social justice and personal empowerment. It was clear that change is truly born from listening to family's needs, bringing together resources, providing educational opportunity and securing sustainable means to achieve results.
I was deeply inspired and ultimately decided to document their work on film as an awareness and fundraising tool. I wanted to highlight the positive outcomes of community-driven health initiatives: The impact of Directly Observed Therapy (DOTS) for HIV and tuberculosis patients, the network of community health workers doing home visits, and the medical students participating in mobile clinics throughout the countryside. This is a program using diverse strategies to elevate public health -- one of many components of healthy communities.
When I traveled to Haiti, I saw a country that was not in destitution, but bore a desperation for respect and dignity. I was immediately taken by the unwavering pride and constitution of the Haitian people and the country's incredible heritage. More than two hundred years ago, Haiti became the first Black independent nation in the world through the determination, strength, aptitude and successful rebellion of African slaves. Since its independence, Haiti has withstood broken promises, natural disasters, political upheaval and exploitation, but has remained proud and magnificent, a reluctant beacon in the fight for social justice. The Haitian people are strong, they are resilient, and they will play their part to elevate themselves from extreme poverty, but they cannot do it alone.
Partially due to the efforts of celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, the mass media is now paying more attention to global poverty than ever before. The AP story of "poor Haitians" eating mud cookies was even picked up by Perez Hilton (who squeezed the article between a story of a pop star's break down and another's drug overdose).
Earlier this week a bill sponsored by Senator Barack Obama entitled the "Global Poverty Act" called for a global tax on the United States that would commit spending .7 percent of the GNP on foreign aid to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals. The lofty goals of this bill are, in fact, not that lofty at all -- its goals are basic human rights. There are many aspects to this bill to highlight: reducing maternal mortality, banning small weapons and arms trading, and ensuring basic universal aspirations for peace.
So, global poverty is now on the radar, and the uninformed are becoming more informed. To paraphrase Professor Sachs: for the first time in history we now have the resources, technology and know-how to end poverty in our lifetime. I believe the answer lays in interdisciplinary approaches -- empowering individuals by providing access to healthcare, means to improve crop production, education, clean water and a pathway to stable nutritional resources.
Once the media spotlight inevitably shifts from global poverty, we must remember that there are health agents, agronomists, educators, doctors and communities working together everyday to make a real difference -- creating solutions to these most difficult challenges. Helping people like Marie Noel -- because no one should have to eat mud cookies.