Acumen Blog

Bienvenue a Port-au-Prince

The power and perils of our connected world

Katie worked at Acumen from 2005 to 2010.  She managed Acumen’s Energy Portfolio in India.  She is now a Global Supply Manager for renewable energy at Apple and sits on Acumen’s Advisory Council.

A few weeks ago, as I boarded a flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I was reminded of an idea often talked about in the halls of Acumen: our global interconnectedness. The airplane was teeming with Haitians returning home for Christmas—so many people who appear to move seamlessly from their American livelihoods to their Haitian roots.  This connectivity is a source of strength.  This vibrant diaspora shares Haiti’s culture overseas and gives back to their country. (From 2010 to 2012, nearly $6 billion of remittances flowed into Haiti, roughly equal to the disbursements from multilateral and bilateral agencies.)

Bienvenue a Port-au-Prince

These thoughts of connectivity continued on my first night in Haiti.  I was staying with my dear friend Olivia and her family in southern Haiti.  Their house is not connected to the grid, so Aunt Jackie handed me a solar lantern for the night.  Of course, it was a d.light S2.  In 2008, I worked on Acumen’s first investment in d.light.  Now, I happen to be a consumer in Haiti—at least for a night.

Yet, as the fourth anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake draws to a close, I am also reminded of a heartbreaking example of our global connectivity.  At the time of the earthquake, Haiti hadn’t seen a case of cholera in over 100 years.  But on October 19, 2010, just nine months after the catastrophe, a vicious strain of the disease was detected.  Since then, approximately one in 15 Haitians, some 685,000 people, have contracted cholera and 8,400 have died.  Last year, Haiti logged more cases than all the rest of the world combined, according to the WHO, and the disease is far from contained.

Haiti was incredibly vulnerable, even before the quake. Only 60% had access to clean water, and 83% of Haitians had no toilets or latrines.  As Charles Patrick Almazor from Zanmi Lasante (Partners in Health) puts it, “Cholera is a good illustration of the vicious cycle of poverty and disease, in which the most vulnerable people are most likely to be victims.”

The source of Haiti’s cholera has been confirmed to be a group of Nepalese soldiers who were operating as U.N. peacekeepers (the “blue helmets”) in Haiti.  Sent to protect and serve the Haitian people, the U.N. forces introduced a disease to a country already crippled by poverty and natural disaster.  The reports show that poor sanitation infrastructure at a U.N. base was to blame for the outbreak.

I find this all the more tragic because in 2000-2001 I lived in Nepal, a country dear to my heart.  I lived in a rural village called Sindhuwa, which had no access to clean water and too few pit latrines—not dissimilar from a Haitian village.  Even more, Nepal’s poverty indicators are on par with Haiti’s—both nations have a GDP per capita of $1,300, and similar water and sanitation challenges.  Nepal still suffers from cholera deaths.  It is a bitter irony that “the second poorest country in Asia” spread cholera to “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.”

This story of Haiti’s cholera outbreak holds many lessons.  First, it reminds us that basic sanitation, clean drinking water, and reasonable healthcare are fundamental to a safe and dignified life.  Second, it reinforces that good intentions can, and do, sometimes go terribly wrong. Finally, Haiti’s cholera story illustrates that 9,000 miles of land and sea no longer insolate against the diseases of poverty.  Our global connectedness amplifies each individual’s impact—for better or for worse.  And, it is our collective responsibility to handle this new power with humility and care.

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