Responding to the Haiti Earthquake: What I've Learned from People on the Ground

One week after the earthquake in Haiti, I continue to be saddened and deeply shaken. Haiti is the most marginalized country in the Western Hemisphere, plagued with crushing levels of poverty and disease, which makes this natural disaster all the more devastating. Haiti is also a country that is very dear to my heart. I was last in Haiti in September and, as always, was moved by the richness of its vibrant culture; the warmth and relational energy of the local Haitian community; the extraordinary art, music and dance; and the unyielding efforts to work for social justice in a country that has known so much instability. But my connection to the Haitian and Haitian-American community precedes this disaster and my visit to Haiti in September by over two decades.

As a former New York City councilwoman and Manhattan borough president from 1990 to 1998, I worked extremely closely with the Haitian-American community. I learned, very early on, that the community is highly organized and led by exceptional grassroots activists, dedicated to advocating for Haitian interests both in the U.S. and Haiti. Unquestionably, my leadership at American Jewish World Service would not be what it is today without the mentorship I received from these Haitian community leaders.

Based on initial reports of widespread devastation and a high number of casualties, AJWS anticipates that the immediate and long-term needs in Haiti will be profound. What we see on television are chilling images of human misery and human heroism amidst unimaginable destruction. We already know that this disaster will take years to fix. There is much to do for so many people, but to be successful the work must include support for the people of Haiti who have their own visions for their own future.

As a start, outside government funding and support from large aid organizations is needed for the removal of massive amounts of debris and for the building of the most essential infrastructure. But this, of course, is not enough. What about the provision of emergency health services and education to help reduce the second wave of casualties due to wounds and contamination from corpses and human waste? What about emergency psycho-social counseling to support survivors? What about the planning and money needed for longer-term recovery efforts in the months following the earthquake to rebuild community centers, clinics and schools; to replant crops and farms that will replenish the local food supply and provide a source of income for local farmers?

History has shown that large-scale relief operations don't always reach the people who are most in need. There are often gaps in rebuilding economic capacity and in long-term planning for sustainable solutions that are critical to a country's revival. And what my Haitian friends and mentors have taught me is that without these solutions real change is absolutely impossible. Furthermore, we must listen to local voices, include them in all planning and empower them to lead in implementation. They have unique knowledge of local culture and politics and the specific needs of each community. Without their participation, our efforts will fail.

For over a decade, American Jewish World Service has been supporting grassroots organizations in Haiti working to promote sustainable development, human rights, women's empowerment, environmental justice and reproductive health. In response to the current crisis, our immediate priority is to assess the needs of our grantees and provide emergency funding to them to enable them to reach the poorest and most remote populations that have been adversely affected. AJWS has set up the Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund to assist survivors. We are moving funds already, not only with our Haitian grantees, but with one of our grantees in the Dominican Republic -- Movimiento De Mujeres Dominico Haitiana (MUDHA) -- which has sent representatives to Port-au-Prince to deliver desperately needed feminine hygiene products, undergarments and diapers to survivors who are without these essentials.

I am touched by the outpouring of support we have received in just one week after this disaster. This support makes it possible for us to be in Haiti now as well as to plan to be there for the long haul. We are coordinating with our field staff and project partners in Haiti about how to respond most effectively and will continue to be in communication with them during every step of our recovery and rebuilding effort.

Donations to AJWS's Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund can be made at

My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the earthquake's victims and to the people of Haiti who need to know, as President Obama said, that we will not forsake them.