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A Different Kind of Out-Of-Office Message: Finding Hope In Haiti — Part One

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This is the first of a two-part post on a trip that Intouch Solutions Technology Strategist David Stanley took to Haiti in November of 2012.

Our mission for this trip was to conduct a systems and controls audit for the Haitian chapter of Heart to Heart International. This audit, mandated by the government of Haiti, was focused on the accounting and information systems of this respected charitable organization.

Heart to Heart International is a globally focused non-governmental organization (NGO) that works to provide immediate medical and humanitarian assistance and relief to victims of natural disasters. Whether the disaster is domestic (Joplin tornado, Hurricane Sandy) or international (Thailand tsunami, Haitian earthquake), Heart to Heart partners with volunteers and corporations to deliver lifesaving aid, support and resources where and when they are needed.

After the earthquake in 2010, Heart to Heart set up a base of operations in Haiti with a different goal in mind. Instead of a temporary effort, this mission would be about sustained intervention, aid and development.

I first became aware of Heart to Heart through my family. Years ago, my wife traveled to India with the organization to deliver medicine and aid supplies to Calcutta. Since then, our family has been involved with them in various ways. My brother-in-law, however, was the catalyst to get me on a plane. When he was asked to do the audit, he asked me to assist him with the technology assessment. With 19 separate clinics and facilities spread throughout the country, as well as the nonexistent infrastructure, there are significant technology challenges to overcome. They needed us to work with the clinics, local townships, utilities and the government to secure data center space and favorable utilities preferences.

Our base of operations was in P'tionville, just outside of Port-au-Prince. P'tionville is a (relatively) well-to-do suburb that was mostly spared from the damage of the earthquake. Based in the former residence of the Minister of Finance for Haiti, our accommodations were actually quite nice and could’ve been any house in any upper-middle-class U.S. suburb.

The intake briefing, however, introduced us to a new normal. Mosquito nets and bug spray were required to prevent — or at least minimize the risk of — malaria. Escorts (usually armed) were required if we left the compound after dark. We were not to consume food that wasn’t approved by our hosts as cholera is a very real and very preventable killer.

Leogane

Our first trip was to Leogane to the west of Port-au-Prince. Leogane was the epicenter of the earthquake with over 95% of all buildings destroyed. Countless lives were lost due to faulty and sub-standard building codes and construction methods. Essentially, the combination of weak mortar and improper methods to tie walls and ceilings together led to many buildings “pancaking” when the quake started. While the rubble was still very visible, the number of buildings and facilities that have been rebuilt since then was stunning. Temporary wood and tin structures were still visible and very much in use, but signs of concrete and cinder block construction (the preferred materials in the humid tropics) were all around us.

Our stop in Leogane was to inspect a pharmacy/lab that was being constructed above the house/office of a local physician. This man’s house was the only one left standing for about three miles in every direction and, naturally, became a focus of much medical activity after the disaster.

We also stopped at a church/school/clinic that was operational in the nearby area. Before the quake, this church was modest in size (about 60 x 60 ft) but boasted over 1,000 parishioners. The quake reduced the entire building to rubble. Not a wall was left in place. Now, though, the community of Leogane has rebuilt it and then some. The new facility is a primary and middle school as well as a church and even has a “clinic in a can” — a converted rail car that has a small laboratory and two exam rooms.

Bel Air

Another place we stopped was at the clinic in the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. The devastation in Bel Air can best be described as “surreal.” Even at its most prosperous, this area was barely more than a tenement camp. Despite the fact that culturally and historically significant buildings such as the National Palace and the Notre Dame Cathedral are close by, the drug gangs run this section of town. Neither the national police nor the United Nations peacekeepers will go there. Heart to Heart is able to work in the area through a tacit agreement with the gangs. The organization will treat their wounded (from gang fights and illness), and they will overlook our presence. The basement of the clinic is really a school and a dental clinic. The main level is a Nazarene church, with the top floors being occupied by the medical clinic and lab facilities.

For a first-time visitor to Haiti, the conditions were overwhelming. From sanitation and poverty to rubble, the suffering is palpable.

After a while, though, you see past the rubble and destruction, and you begin to see the beauty and humanity of a resilient culture.

Up Next

The next post will focus on the audit process itself. From interviews to on-site inspections, I will detail the process we followed to gather information, as well as the recommendations we delivered.

To see all the photos of David’s trip, see the album on Intouch’s Facebook page.

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