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Story Publication logo April 26, 2013

For Haiti, First Ask: What Help Is Needed?


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An Iowa-based medical team has been traveling to rural Haiti for years, assisting residents with...

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Residents of the village of Lot Bo Ladig spread gravel to patch a rutted road to their town. The gravel was purchased by Community Health Initiative so that a heavy truck with a well-drilling rig could make its way to the village. Image by Mary Chind. Haiti, 2013.

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Dr. Chris Buresh has seen plenty of well-meaning Americans fail to think through their actions before trying to help Haitians.

"I don't want to sound like a jerk," said Buresh, a University of Iowa physician who leads medical teams to Haiti. "I think people send things down here and do things with all the best intentions and with hearts full of hope and charity and love."

But as an example, he points to used ambulances that American groups have sent. The groups stock the ambulances with medical equipment, then spend thousands of dollars to have them shipped to Haiti. If they're lucky, they'll find some Haitians with enough training to use the ambulances for a while. But when the vehicles break, he said, there are no spare parts and no mechanics able to fix complicated equipment.

Even when the ambulances work, he said, there's no way for injured people to summon one. "What number do you call? They don't have 911, right? So you call — who?"

In the end, he said, a donated ambulance won't do Haiti much good.

"It was an amazing idea, and really a very charitable thing to do, but it just rusts," he said.

He urges donors and aid agencies to think carefully about how best to help people. One of the simplest ways to do that, he said, is to talk to Haitians to determine what they need.


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