The University of Iowa

UI guest lecturer works on Haiti awareness

August 24th, 2011

By Joan Staak, The Daily Iowan

A year and seven months after Haiti was devastated by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, public awareness of the poverty-stricken country has shrunk.

Dr. Paul Farmer, a cofounder of the humanitarian organization Partners in Health and a Harvard professor, is working to change that.

Since his college years, Farmer, one of the world’s leading humanitarians, has worked in Haiti and other developing nations to bring modern medical care to the impoverished. On Wednesday, he called on universities to offer more humanitarian aid.

A crowd of approximately 1,200 members of the University of Iowa and Iowa City communities packed into the IMU on Wednesday night to welcome Farmer as the first speaker of the 2011-12 University Lecture Committee series.

Farmer’s speech, “Haiti: An Unnatural Disaster,” focused on the chronic struggle against endless disease, the immense damage incurred by the devastating earthquake in January 2010, and recent efforts to combat medical and infrastructural inadequacies.

The earthquake exposed the nation’s already vulnerable infrastructure. Of the 29 federal buildings standing in Haiti before the earthquake, one survived the disaster.

Around 1.5 million people were displaced from their homes, and 220,000 were killed, according to Disasters Emergency Committee.

Despite these circumstances, Farmer remained positive that the reconstruction process in Haiti is progressing well.

“I got from Port-Au-Prince to central Haiti for the first time in a long, long time on a paved road the whole way,” he said. “One month ago, that would not have been possible.”

But he said more volunteers are needed to aid the rebuilding process.

“It was very heartening to see the national response, to have so many people from all over the world come to Haiti,” Farmer said. “Most groups that came in have gone and left, but the homeless people and medical problems are still there.”

He said universities should focus their efforts on research and long-term training.

“In the month after the earthquake, the academic medical centers made a very good showing in Haiti,” he said. “There were people from scores of universities. They were providing direct service.

Some had been involved in Haiti before.”

Although there are no specific humanitarian programs directed by the UI, Chris Buresh, a clinical assistant professor in the UI Emergency Medicine Department who was heavily involved in humanitarian efforts in Haiti, hopes that a master’s program in Global Development will gain approval from the university and provide a channel for students looking to gain knowledge in developing global-outreach programs.

Buresh said the program is still in the preliminary stages of development. If it there is enough support for the program, it is expected to be a two-year postgraduate degree in many UI colleges requiring at least one semester abroad working in developing nations.

“Students would learn how to look at a problem from a bunch of different perspectives,” Buresh said. “They would learn to work closely with the people on the ground, the local population.”

Lucy Joseph, a Haitaian-American UI graduate with an M.A. in urban and regional planning, helped organize a luncheon in Iowa City a few days after the earthquake to raise money for victims.

She suggested the university offer a study-abroad program that would allow students to work for relief in Haiti. She also said that students should take any offered courses and join relief programs to keep the disaster “fresh in everybody’s mind.”