http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/s ... D7000A5EC9
Earthquake aftermath frustrates area doctor
BY DOUG MOORE
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
ST. LOUIS — The earthquake in Haiti earlier this year had unexpected consequences for Dr. Patricia Wolff and her nonprofit Meds & Food for Kids.
The young organization had toiled mostly outside the spotlight for six years in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Suddenly, there was great interest in what she was doing. People wanted to help survivors of one of the world's greatest disasters.
The latest example: Nestlé announced this week it would donate almost $280,000 to Meds & Food. That is more than half of the nonprofit's annual operating budget.
Wolff stresses that she is grateful for the financial support from Nestlé and others. Without it, the nonprofit would not be able to operate. But she is using the newfound interest in Meds & Food to express frustration with a system she said is not working effectively in Haiti.
The ultimate goal of any effort, she said, should be to make the country independent. But she sees most efforts, both pre- and postearthquake, as focusing on rescuing instead of sustaining.
"Poverty is a business. If they resolve things in Haiti, what business will they be in?" said Wolff, referring to agencies that have a large presence there and companies that provide goods and service for a country largely dependent on others.
"How long is this country going to be like this? It's going to be like this forever unless we start doing development in a serious way. I'm not at all confident that the earthquake response is going to go anywhere but rescue."
Wolff, a professor of clinical pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine, returned Sunday from six weeks in Haiti, a country she has spent nearly half her time in over the past six years. Her frustration comes at a pivotal time for the nonprofit. Before the earthquake, Meds & Food had began raising $1.5 million for a new factory in Haiti. The nonprofit currently produces its Medika Mamba, a fortified peanut butter-like food, out of space it rents in a home in Cap-Haitien, about 150 miles north of the destruction in Port-au-Prince.
Building a factory will give the nonprofit a permanent home — the rented space is its fifth location — and the ability to make more Medika Mamba, which helps fight acute malnutrition, a leading killer of children in Haiti. Most importantly, she said, it will allow more Haitians to learn how to grow, produce and distribute food.
Wolff wants agencies that are supplying food to Haitians to focus on buying goods locally, including from Meds & Food. Jobs create revenue, helping families get better health care and education.
But she's having a hard time so far.
Larger for-profit companies in the U.S., France and the Dominican Republic sell similar products, known internationally as ready-to-use-therapeutic-food, or RUTF. The product is in great demand in Third World countries because no water or heat source is needed to eat it.
The ready-to-eat foods are usually cheaper and available in larger quantities from for-profit companies. That is appealing to the big support systems in the country such as the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Before the Jan. 12 earthquake, 3,000 nongovernment organizations had registered with the United Nations as working in Haiti. Since then, another 900 or so have registered, said Moira Whelan, a spokeswoman for USAID. UNICEF puts that number closer to 1,100.
Whelan said that USAID has the same mission as Wolff, but the earthquake brought thousands of organizations with various priorities together at once creating overwhelming challenges.
"In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, it was about lifesaving, but now it is life-sustaining operations. Everything we do is put into long-term development."
For small nonprofits such as Meds & Food, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle, Whelan said.
"It's a big tent and it can be challenging," Whelan said. Organizations have to aggressively sell themselves, show the value they are providing "so it can be exploited." Whelan said she was unfamiliar with Meds & Food, is new to USAID and did not know why the agency has been resistant in the past to work with Wolff.
"The message I'd send is we'd very much like their involvement."
Christopher de Bono of UNICEF said bringing the hundreds of nongovernment organizations to the table, "all with their own priorities, is a major chore."
He said Wolff's nonprofit is a welcome fit in the efforts to sustain Haiti's independence.
"In other countries, we've cajoled people into setting up factories that produce such (foods)," de Bono said. In Haiti, that is no different.
"We've been pushing for local production. She's doing a great thing," he said. Wolff's challenge, like many small nonprofits, is getting to the people who are buying.
And for groups such as UNICEF, it's getting a clear understanding of who does what and how to make it best fit into the big picture. Especially right after a disaster.
"Otherwise you have 40 million blankets and no food and all the same people are getting the blankets while a mile away people are freezing," de Bono said.
Wolff, 62, said she is hopeful that organizations in the market for ready-to-eat foods will show as much interest in her nonprofit as those who have stepped forward recently to help out financially.
"Our work has come to be in the front of more people's brains than before, and this exposure has helped us a lot," Wolff said. "People we had been talking with for five years, big companies, have actually stepped up and taken notice and felt it was in their own best interest to get out there and be philanthropic in a public way."
For that, Wolff is thankful. But she said it's hard for her to be happy considering it took an earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000 to get people interested in what she is doing in Haiti.
"There's so many good causes in the world, it's hard to get traction," she said.
Wolff heads back to Haiti March 7. She will spend a few more weeks there, eventually getting back to a schedule of alternating three weeks there and three weeks in St. Louis. It's her idea of a normal schedule.
Wolff said she wants the factory built in two years. More importantly, she wants the culture of Haiti to be one of independence, and for malnutrition no longer to be a leading cause of death among children.